Most priests, I suspect, will require a catechumenate that spans months if not years. This is less a matter of assessing whether the seeker has all the details of dogma memorized than of assessing whether the seeker is prepared to accept the authority of the Church in matters of faith, and committed to the journey ahead. Which is to say, even if you can’t understand all of the Church’s answers, are you prepared to accept them as authoritative? If you can’t understand it all, can you “put it on the shelf” as I did and truly believe that it will all become clear as you grow into the faith? No one is “ready” to embrace the strange world view of Orthodoxy, but are you ready to move toward it? Becoming Orthodox is more about relationship than learning, and is experiential. You become Orthodox by being Orthodox.
For some, the struggle is too difficult, and the leap into the darkness too frightening. They return to their former faith tradition, or find another, or nothing at all. I pray that they were enriched by their sojourn in the Church, and that they will not be able to get it out of their systems. Some of those who leave may even find the courage one day to come back.
For those who do stay, there are other challenges: struggles with immediate and extended family members and friends who can’t understand or accept the convert’s choice, struggles with embracing a life that in so many ways is outside mainstream American culture, perhaps even struggles with parishioners who may question the motivation and commitment of the convert. “Are you Greek? Are you Russian?” you’ll be asked, and some days you won’t have an easy answer.
For many, the experience of becoming Orthodox will be more like that of the convert to Orthodox Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, than that of the convert to mainline Protestantism or Roman Catholicism which are more known and accepted than Orthodoxy in our culture and (in many cases) demand much less of the convert. Orthodoxy (if you do it right) is a whole lifestyle and world-view that can be taxing and frustrating at times.
You will probably take part in some sort of catechism class, either one-on-one with your priest or his delegate, or in a small group format. There may be hard questions you want to ask; don’t hesitate to ask them. If your instructor doesn’t have the answers, he or she will research them for you. If reading books is not the best way for you to learn things, say so; Orthodoxy offers experiential as well as verbal methods for learning the Faith.
Be aware that the catechumenate can be a period of real and difficult spiritual struggle. Both real and imagined obstacles will suddenly rear up in your path, and you may be tempted at times to find (in the words of the Blue Book of Alcoholics Anonymous) “an easier, softer way.” Tell your priest about your struggles; he will give you suggestions for dealing with these temptations and overcoming them. He may suggest you talk to another parishioner who has engaged in similar battles.
In my former parish, we noted that conflict between parishioners or different parish groups often arises in association with Great Lent. Or we’d notice that quite a few people are struggling in various ways. Then someone would remember, “Oh, that’s right: Lent is coming.” Perhaps it’s coincidence; perhaps we’d conditioned ourselves to expect conflict and struggle around Lent. Perhaps it’s the work of demons. I don’t know which explanation is the right one. Decades later, I do know that you can expect periodic struggles of a spiritual nature as an Orthodox Christian to start before you’ve been baptized or been chrismated. The more open you are with your spiritual father about these struggles, the better. He can provide you with the tools you need to get through these sudden storms of doubt without being swept away.
It’s tempting to respond to these attacks by going overboard: if prayer twice a day is good, prayer four times a day will be better. You may run into those who encourage you to engage in practices above and beyond those recommended by your spiritual father, or to read “supplementary” books of a monastic nature that they’ve found helpful. We do not roll our own Orthodox disciplines! Check with your priest before you engage in any practice recommended by others, or read any book to supplement the reading he’s given you. Some practices and texts are “graduate level,” and it can be dangerous to engage in them before you’re ready for them.
For various reasons, not all enquirers become catechumens; and not all catechumens become Orthodox. There may be obstacles standing in the way: I have seen families shaken or torn apart by a member’s decision to join the Church. Sometimes the enquirer or catechumen encounters a concept of overwhelming strangeness and can’t get beyond it. Or the personal cost of becoming Orthodox is daunting for other reasons. Conflict with the priest, or with members of the parish may arise and call into question the enquirer’s or catechumen’s belief that she has found the True Faith.
Perhaps you’re an enquirer or catechumen who is reading this because you are starting to have doubts about your decision to become Orthodox. It may be helpful to know that others have walked this hard road and made it: talk to others who have done it and share your doubts and concerns. Talk to your priest, if he is experienced working with converts; or ask for a referral to someone who has such experience and can serve as your mentor or guide through the process.
And if you do walk away, know that you don’t have to see it through a lens of finality: being Orthodox is a process, not an altar call or a one-time “decision for Christ.” Remain open to the workings of the Holy Spirit in your life, and to the possibility that things will change for you at some unknown point in the future. Practice the art of self-awareness.
Those of us who grew up in the West tend to have a hard time of it when we approach the Church and are told by various well-meaning people to be patient. Like the lover who is advised by friends and family to wait until he knows his beloved well, we desire to elope with the Church, to find the one piece of information that will convince us that yes, this is the right decision, and we should make it now rather than later. During my early months as an enquirer, I was advised by a friend to take it at my own pace, and not to let anyone talk me into making a decision too quickly. I’ve come to value the wisdom of that advice.
The choice to become Orthodox is not one that should be taken lightly: if this is the one true Church, then anyone who apostasizes, does so at her own spiritual peril. Presumably, the Holy Spirit has brought you down a road that has led you to Orthodoxy, and to choose a different path as you stand before the gates of the Heavenly City is to reject the Leadership you have been offered.
Traveling this road changes one: I was not the same person on the day of my baptism as the lapsing agnostic who rejected the solution offered by Protestantism and started out on the road. After having tasted the medicine of immortality and having understood what this truly means, deciding to leave the Church and become Roman Catholic or Protestant is for me unthinkable. I would be an Orthodox Christian play-acting at being a Roman Catholic or Protestant, a person in exile, a stranger in a strange land.
If you let it, Orthodoxy will transform your way of looking at yourself, your way of looking at your fellow human beings, your way of looking at worship and even reality itself. It is a process of transformation that reveals the true nature of what we’re about when we gather together for worship: offering glory to God and entering into a mystical Community.
I received a graduate degree in clinical psychology from a well-known evangelical Protestant college, and while there, one of my fellow students invited me to a graduate student worship service she was coleading. There was what the evangelicals call “praise music”, with decent vocals and accompaniment on guitar, keyboard, and conga drums. Someone in the counseling department gave a sermon that I recall being to the point, relevant, and useful. Afterward, my friend asked me how I liked the worship service. I told her it was very nice, worshipful, and well done.
All those things were true, but the whole time I was being mildly entertained by the well-meaning and enthusiastic participants, I found myself longing for the timeless beauty of the Trisagion, or the Hours. For true, Orthodox worship, which is less about unlocking a “spiritual experience” for is than it is about offering back to God that which is already His.
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