I am a convert to Orthodoxy and live in regional Australia. I came to my local Greek Orthodox Church from the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch whose Patriarch is based in Syria. In Australia, this Church is known as the Antiochian Orthodox Church. There are five traditions of World Orthodoxy represented in my area, but only the Greek and Serbian traditions are "affiliated" with the Patriarch of Constantinople. Only rarely do these churches offer a Divine Liturgy in English.
I'd like to share with you some of my thoughts on what difficulties converts face on coming into the Orthodox Faith. It has been my experience that, if one wants to do more than just participate in a "nominal way" in the life of the church, a full commitment to the Orthodox Faith is what is required. My sole purpose in writing this letter is to increase awareness of the process of conversion to the Faith. I pray that I will do this with humility. Hopefully, by sharing some of my thoughts with you, we can learn from one another that the road will be made just a little easier (not just for those converts who may come after people like me but for each one of us whose spiritual journeys are often unique and deeply personal as we aspire to live our lives in the Lord's name).
People who come to the Orthodox Church from another faith are required to do Catechesis. This means taking instructions in the Orthodox Faith. On transferring over to the Greek Church, I was given special permission by the Bishop so that I would not have to undertake any more catechesis. I was also granted approval to be Chrismated any time after that. Because of the unique circumstances that led me to the Greek Church, I found myself as the only convert attending the church on a regular basis, in need of a kind of "unofficial" catechesis. This was not only because I was grasping with a new faith and how to truly live an Orthodox life in the outside world, but also because of the particular demographics of the church and my reawakening to its different culture and language.
Such an experience has given me a good foundation in Orthodoxy and has helped when I have had to face the various challenges of life. I have held a strong conviction that Orthodoxy is the true Faith for a long time. I wanted to offer my commitment to God through not just the Sunday Services but some of the most wondrous services in the Orthodox Church including the Paraklesis (Service of Supplication) and Esperinos (Vespers). I longed for some English in the Services so that I could explore all the senses... Orthodoxy is certainly an encounter of the mind, body and soul.
Converts have a variety of experiences coming into the Faith ranging from virtually turning themselves inside out as they throw out a lot of their values and beliefs held for a life time. For others, the move to another faith can be quite smooth.
The difficulties of course are naturally more likely in parishes where only one or two converts come to church on an on-going basis and want to participate regularly in the various services and not just in the Divine Liturgy. The church may also be of one particular ethnic persuasion and/or have a particular age demographic.
This means that not only does a sole convert have to adapt to a new faith, they also have to deal with being virtually totally immersed into another culture overnight. Because of a lack of any sort of history of regular converts attending a particular church, there may also be some bewilderment on the part of some parishioners as to WHY the convert is actually there in the first place.
This lack of understanding may have been coloured by a particular parishioner's personal experiences of family members becoming Orthodox for the sole reason of wanting to marry someone in the family who happens to be of that faith. Anecdotal evidence tends to show that once married, such new family members rarely, if ever, attend an Orthodox church.
As far as my own transition to Orthodoxy is concerned, I found myself asking lots of questions - everything from: "Why did God send me in such a roundabout way back to the Greek Church; the very church from where I thought about converting some 20 years ago?" to "What sort of spiritual and practical commitment is expected from anyone who is a member of a parish community such as the one I found myself in?"
- Asking ourselves every day about what are we aiming for in the Christian life and being aware that what we think, say and do should be in line.
- Offering ourselves to God in the service of His Kingdom, not just on Sundays, but every day of the year.
- When you feel discouraged, being strengthened by encouraging comments from Greek-Australians.
- Trying to throw out the legalisms carried over from one's former faith as one works through what should actually be one's personal response as an Orthodox confession and communion.
- Learning that the role of the spiritual father is not the same as a Catholic Priest.
- Exposing one's own weaknesses to a spiritual father in order to better understand one's response to the Faith; to better understand ourselves and with God's help see the inner state of our soul and grow even more from the experience.
- Knowing that when things get really tough, we need to just step away and taking a sabbatical for a while, remembering not to be too hard on ourselves. There is so much to grasp as a committed convert coming into the Church and we are all only human, after all!
Despite the obstacles, coming to the Church has made me stronger spiritually in a lot of` ways. It has been difficult though, to offer patience in the midst of affliction. Sometimes, when the affliction brought about by others causes us immense pain, we need to try and liberate ourselves from such encounters by reminding ourselves that the suffering of the moment is not worth worying about, considering the glory we will experience later on (Romans 8:18).
I understand that Orthodox witnessing is setting an example to others by bearing witness to the Truth and is the job of every member of the Church. By having such an outlook, we can actually help our local Parish in genuine service. So, ideally, this offering of ourselves should be a way of life. We should be in a continuous relationship with God and hopefully we should be having an ongoing dialogue with Him and His people. The words " Your own of Your Own, we offer to you" are a declaration of our Faith. We should give God all our time, talent and treasure every moment of the day, because He has given us His gift of grace out of unconditional love for us.
I feel we have a wonderful treasure in the Orthodox Christian Faith. Others really should be able to see the beauty of our Faith. Let us consider challenging the attitudes and modes of our being, so we can continue to grow in the Faith and the Love of Christ.
From The Greek Australian VEMA, Dec 2003, p. 39.