I found Holy Transfiguration by looking in the yellow pages: the ad said its services were in English, it was close to my home, and the priest had an Italian name. I visited the parish web site, and liked the friendliness I saw there. When I called the church, a member told me there were many converts in the parish. It seemed like a safe place to be and convert-friendly for someone like myself, so I decided to visit. I joined the Antiochian archdiocese months later not through any particular personal affinity for the archdiocese, but because of the relationships I built in the parish during my period of enquiry. I suppose this is as good a reason for choosing a particular parish as any.
You may look at the yellow pages in your community and find a number of Orthodox parishes listed there, and some other denominations (like Orthodox Presbyterian churches) that include the word orthodoxy in their names but are not Orthodox with a big O. How do you decide which parishes to visit, and which one to join? More importantly, how do you become part of the Church once you’ve made a decision to become a catechumen?
The ancient answers to these questions would have been: move only for good reasons and with your priest’s blessing, join the parish closest to your home when you do move, and if you are converting, engage in a three-year catechumenate that will end with you becoming Orthodox at Pascha (Passover: the Orthodox name for what the West calls Easter). In current American practice, however, people do sometimes move from parish to parish (and sometimes for less than holy reasons), and a catechumenate lasts for a period of months rather than years, with the catechumen coming into the Church via Chrismation or Baptism at an appropriate time in the Parish’s and the catechumen’s schedules. In other words, work it out with your priest who with the Bishop’s blessing will determine the best strategy for bringing you into the Church. Accepting the fact that it will happen at a time not necessarily of your choosing and in a manner you may disagree with will be one of your first acts of humility as a new-born Orthodox Christian, and as such will be good medicine for your soul.
It’s difficult being a catechumen, because it seems that so much is being asked of you. For me, this meant placing certain issues on the shelf and trusting that they would resolve themselves over time, as my understanding of the faith grew in breadth and depth. This might work for you. Or, you might believe that you need to work through your issues before making the leap. What I’d counsel for all enquirers is patience – with the process, with your understanding, with yourselves. Our Western minds like everything wrapped up neatly and resolved, but the process of growing into Orthodoxy is most often anything but neat and straightforward.
I remember my first encounter with the music of Jimi Hendrix nearly forty years ago. A friend told me Hendrix’s first album, Are You Experienced? was great music, and that Jimi was one of the greatest living guitarists. I listened to the album, and I just didn’t get it (my taste ran to classical and folk music at the time). But people I trusted told me there was something there, to keep giving it a chance, and I did so: I listened to that album over and over again. Eventually, I did understand, but it wasn’t an understanding of Reason: it was an understanding grounded instead in a non-rational aesthetic, an understanding of the Heart. Jimi Hendrix rose rapidly to the top of my favorite artists, and I came to look forward to each of his albums with great anticipation.
When the lights go on for some Orthodox catechumens, the experience has more in common with the visceral understanding of Jimi Hendrix’s emotional artistry and technical virtuosity than with the rational appreciation of the mathematical precision and Truth of Bach. For other catechumens I have known, the initial appreciation of Orthodoxy is for its theology, which is holistic and internally consistent in a way that Western theology can only approximate. We all respond in different ways to Truth and Beauty, and I would pray that whoever reads this will eventually come to understand that the teachings of the Church will reveal all to you of Truth and Beauty that you will ever need to know.
I have to confess, I didn’t like Orthodox chanting or the Orthodox liturgy very much when I first started attending services. The sound of the music was foreign, the translations were in a kind of phony antique English, the icons seemed dated and primitive in their aesthetics. The initial attraction for me was intellectual and historical; I believed in my head that this was the Church established by Christ. Because I believed it was so, I trusted that my heart would follow and that I would come to appreciate Orthodoxy’s alien look and feel.
One of the things that struck me during my stint as a Protestant was the assumption that liturgical traditions and innovations were conveniences for the worshipper: keys to help unlock the experience of the Divine Immanence that needed to speak to the tastes of the present age. One Lent, our United Church of Christ pastor incorporated anointing with ashes into the service for the first Sunday in Lent. In good liberal Protestant fashion, we anointed our own heads with ashes. I had always liked the Western tradition of Ash Wednesday, and so I told our pastor that I would save the palms from Palm Sunday so we could burn them for the following year’s Lenten season. As Lent approached the following year, I reminded her of the palms I had set aside for this, and she said, “Oh, we’re not going to do that this year; we’re going to try something different.”
Orthodoxy isn’t like this. We receive traditions that have been handed down for many centuries, and we pass them on to our children with reverence. Traditions, rather than being empty relics of a dead past, are the living and breathing stuff of life itself. When traditions change, it usually happens in an organic way, over a time frame spanning decades or even centuries.
The modern worshipper wants to ask, what’s in it for me? Do you have good enough programs for my kids? Do you have a good singles group? How’s your choir and your music? Do you have great media presentations? What kind of gourmet coffee do you serve after (or even during) your services? Do you have services at a time that’s convenient for me? The worshipper who does not find a “rewarding experience” in one congregation moves with few regrets elsewhere, seeking a liturgical fix that provides the emotionalism or “relevance” that meets the modern worshipper’s individualistic needs.
Truth and Beauty conform themselves to the modern worshipper’s expectations. That’s the modern way. To worship in an Orthodox church, on the other hand, is to attempt to conform oneself to a Tradition that is greater and more ancient than oneself and that is sometimes an affront to modern sensibilities. The catechumen who can put aside her individualistic desire to control the terms of the relationship with Tradition will find a rich beauty and truth there. She will find her heart’s desire.
If there are local churches in your yellow pages that seem to be Orthodox, give them a call during office hours. Ask what jurisdictions they are in, and who their bishops are. Ask them if their bishops participate in SCOBA. The jurisdictions (Greek Orthodox, Orthodox Church in America, Antiochian, and others) all have parish finders on their web sites. In some cases, these will take you directly to parish web sites where you can find directions and phone numbers for the parishes. Ask the priest when you contact him whether there are converts or enquirers in the parish, and how “convert friendly” the parish is. Getting in contact with someone who has converted or is considering conversion will provide you with a good way of testing the parish waters before you jump in.
Not all of us are fortunate to have a convert-friendly Orthodox church nearby. I have heard terrible stories of converts being discouraged from joining ethnic parishes because they didn’t fit the “profile.” In many parts of the South and West, Orthodox churches are few and far between. If you go through the yellow pages in your phone directory and there are no Orthodox churches listed, try the parish finders at the jurisdictions to find the nearest parishes and plan a road trip to visit one. You can contact the archdioceses and ask if there are any plans for mission parishes within a reasonable driving distance.
I have known many Orthodox Christians who have driven an hour or even an hour and a half to services. The downside is that a long commute to a parish will make regular participation in the day-to-day life of the parish difficult. You may find yourself feeling isolated or left out. But those I have known who have made sacrifices to participate in the life of an Orthodox parish have all said that the effort made to purchase this Pearl of Great Price was worth it.
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