Rod Dreher

Rod Dreher


The pain in religious conversion

posted by Rod Dreher

An Orthodox friend sends word of a catechumen in his parish, coming to Orthodoxy from Catholicism. My friend is pleased about this, as am I — but I told my friend that as a former Catholic, I have absolutely no feelings of triumphalism about this news. Why? Because I can easily imagine the pain that catechumen may be going through right now, having gone through it myself several years ago.
Relative newcomers to this blog may wish to read my conversion story. It’s long, and was written in a single emotional session at the keyboard, then posted; there are things I would have said differently, and several grammatical errors. Still, I stand by it, because it’s a true account of how I came to leave Catholicism for Orthodoxy. In terms of comments (over 500), it was the most popular post ever on my old Crunchy Con blog. I re-read it last night for the first time in years, and I was struck by how raw my emotions were. I was also reminded of how strange and guilty I felt on the day I was received into Orthodoxy. Strange, because I couldn’t believe I was no longer Catholic, when Catholicism had formed the core of my identify for 13 years, and guilty, not so much because I felt like a traitor to Catholicism (because there was some of that), but because I couldn’t express the joy that other Orthodox converts do on their chrismation day, and, in turn, because I was afraid of hurting the feelings of my new Orthodox friends by not expressing joy. I worried they would think I was sorry to be Orthodox because I wasn’t over the moon with joy.
What I felt mostly was relief, and gratitude: God had given me a second chance. And, above all, humility. I had been such a triumphalistic Catholic, and had lost all of that. I would not be that kind of Orthodox, nor did I have it in me to be. It’s not because I’m an especially virtuous person. It’s because I was defeated, and had my intellectual and spiritual pride shattered.
The feeling I had on the morning I was received into Orthodoxy was the kind of quiet joy one might well feel when, after having been shipwrecked, and drifting on the currents in shark-infested waters, clinging to splinters and boards, one washes ashore on a verdant island — safe at last, but still traumatized by the loss. This is not the kind of conversion story we like to hear. When I was a Catholic, I loved, I mean really loved, reading conversion stories like those in the “Surprised By Truth” series. I especially appreciated the sense converts to Catholicism had of stepping into an undiscovered country, full of delights one hadn’t imagined existed. That’s what it was like for me to become a Catholic. Meaning no disrespect to my Protestant roots, when I entered the Catholic Church, it was like the world shifted from black and white to Technicolor 3D. It’s hard to explain this to a Catholic or a Protestant who hasn’t experienced the shift, but the Catholic theological and devotional world was, to me, far more intricate and textured. Please understand that I’m not trying to express a value judgment here, but rather to describe the experience of the imaginative world of Catholicism. After entering that world, and absorbing it into my bones, when I’d go back into Protestant churches (or modern Catholic parishes that had a stripped-down Protestantized decor), things felt flattened out and vacated. Again, let me be clear: this is not a judgment on the faith of the people in those parishes, most of whom were almost certainly more faithful Christians than I. I’m trying to express the emotional and imaginative experience of living as a Catholic.
One reason I was so confident that I could never lose that was because the devotional and aesthetic particulars of Catholicism had become so much a part of who I was. There’s no point in rehashing how it happened — again, read my story if you want to know — but it did happen, and I experienced the loss in the same way I imagine people experience the dissolution of a marriage that has drifted to the point of irreconcilable differences. Most of the people I know who have converted from one religion (or form of religion) to another — Protestant to Catholic, Catholic to Orthodox, etc. — tell their stories as narrative of moving into a state of fullness, of completion. I don’t think I know anybody who is angry at their former churches, though I could be wrong there; most converts I know believe that they now have a fullness or completion that they once lacked, despite the good things in their old religion or church. As I said, they may feel that they have stepped into a 3D Technicolor world now. I can see that as being true for former Catholics who had grown weary of a ritualized, emotionally dessicated Catholicism, and come into a far more spiritually and emotionally satisfying life as a born-again Evangelical. I have a born-again friend who was raised Orthodox but converted to Evangelicalism, who describes his journey in this way.
The point I wish to make here is that not all conversion stories are triumphal narratives in which the convert finds fulfillment and completion. That’s the standard conversion story, the one that converts to a faith, and partisans of a faith, love to hear. But that’s not how it is with all of us. Sometimes, at least for a while, the pain of what was renounced is more palpable than the pleasure of what was embraced. And that’s just how it is. It can be hard to talk about, because one’s old religious community doesn’t want to hear it, and one’s new religious community may not know what to do with it.
[In the thread below, I insist that commenters avoid one-upsmanship and triumphalism in talking about conversions, and avoid apologetics on behalf of one religion or another. I'll unpublish those entries. I want us to talk about conversion, but not in the sense of "our team won one."]



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Tony D.

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:56 am


It’s not because I’m an especially virtuous person. It’s because I was defeated, and had my intellectual and spiritual pride shattered.
At the risk of feeding the demon pride in you, Brother, I can’t help but point out how appropriate this state you describe is for anyone entering any version of the Christian faith. And it’s especially good for me, for one, to be reminded of as we Orthodox hear the stories of the Pharisee and the Publican, the Prodigal Son, and especially the Last Judgement in preparation for the great joyful sorrow that is Great Lent.



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Pat

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:07 am


I made a much less traumatic conversion from evangelicalism to MTD, because the god presented in my evangelical church didn’t like me. The message we heard every week was that he was dissatisfied with us in every way, no matter how much we boosted our donations and involvement; one day I realized that I was working for a god whom I wouldn’t cross the street to spit on, and that I woke every Sunday wishing I didn’t have to be a christian.
If I hadn’t discovered my MTD church, I would have left christianity entirely. But I feel sad about the friends I left behind in my old church. There’s certainly no triumph in it.



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Charles Cosimano

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:55 am


At the risk of giving Rod a heart attack, I think I actually understand what he is saying. It doesn’t always come in the form of religion. For some it comes in art. For others, science. And no one who has ever seen a mathematician at work can but realize that he is witnessing a ecstatic experience. But there is an indefinable something that hits the human soul and yes, it makes everything else look flat by comparison. And once it happens to a person, that person is never the same again.
It comes with a lot of words. Rod uses conversion because he is writing of it in a religious context, but the truth is that words do not work for it. Often it is associated with a crisis in life that blasts open the barriers, but it does not have to be. All we know about it is that it is a profound, life affirming and expanding thing.
I am too much the skeptic to believe that this a connection to God. I am inclined to see it as something in the nature of the human psyche, but the nature of the experience is undeniable and the person who has it is the richer for it.



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Charles Curtis

posted January 30, 2010 at 12:31 pm


I’m not going to type much, both because there isn’t in essence much to say..
And because I don’t know if you’ve still got me banned for pleading mercy upon the Saracen..
But as you may know, you and I have been along similar paths. That island you found, I ran aground upon. My Orthodox friends loved to tell me how the barque of Peter was sinking. That the true ark was Orthodoxy.. The kinder and more flexible (all of them converts, but from protestantism, themselves) would tell me ,
“We know where the Church is, we don’t know where it isn’t..”
That’s what they say. I never told them, but I know in my heart that that’s bulls**t.
In my broken heart. I can tell them that despite all the static, distortion and corruption that she is still ..
Babylon the Great, convert to Christ.
Ninevah, in her scarlet pride..
Broken in ashes, now Kirkuk.
Still, in her sin, converted.
I now seek my own chastening. My own sackcloth.
Bless you, Rod. Thanks.



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Connie Connie in Wisconsin

posted January 30, 2010 at 12:34 pm


I have no conversion story of my own to relate, as I was born and remain Protestant, and not a particularly emotion one. I’m struck that Rod makes no mention of any stories of people who have left Catholicism for Protestantism, and feel that they were called out.



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Charles Curtis

posted January 30, 2010 at 12:44 pm


I just re-read what I wrote above. I should clarify..
(out of my own confusion)
Not to say that their faith in the Church is nonsense, only that it is nonetheless still faith. And I gave my heart to God thirty four years ago, when some priest told me to “lift up your heart.”
I lifted it up unto the Lord. Our Lady of Fatima simply sealed the deal, a bit later on.
The scandal, Unam Sanctam, Constantinople III and Constance (etc., etc.) are all rational assaults on my understanding, in fact, they broke my mind..
But my heart has always been hers.
I’ve never stopped loving her. Even if I tried to go with her sister for a while, even if she’s done her best to disfigure herself..
(I don’t know if those metaphors are exact, but that’s how it’s felt..)
I still love her.



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Ali

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:05 pm


I converted to Orthodoxy almost two years ago. At the time of my conversion, I knew Christ and was involved in the Protestant world but still flailing about. I did have a sense of profound comfort and joy in coming to Orthodoxy. Looking back, however, there are several things I would have done differently. I was led to Orthodoxy by some very zealous converts who wanted me to move away from my Protestant friends (I will never do that because my best friends are Protestants, and thank goodness Orthodoxy has not put a rift in our friendship as it has with other people–though this is due more to the grace and patience and love of my friends than any presence of virtue on my part). I said some very dogmatic and hurtful things, and I actually damaged a serious relationship because of my vigilance. I have repaired that relationship since my conversion, but I still have to be careful in how I deal with that situation.
Only now am I learning to deal with others with grace and love rather than with dogmatic statements, but it has been a hard learning process. My life is infinitely richer, and I have more comfort and joy in Christ than I ever did before converting–and I am forever grateful for how God has worked in my life–but He has taught me some serious lessons along the way.



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Andrea

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:14 pm


I can’t imagine converting, but it may be that that is a flaw in me. I don’t get swept away by religion or religious rites. I remember going on a retreat when I was in high school and trying and failing to feel the sense of connection and belonging that so many of the teenagers there seemed to feel. I came home and professed that I had felt a glimmer of something and met my mother’s skeptical “Really?” She knew me too well. I felt similarly at my confirmation. It was something I did largely because it was the thing to do and it would be a family embarrassment if I did not do it and I was relieved when it was over.
Any emotionally transformative experiences I have had have usually come outside of church, when I was reading or writing poetry or listening to music or watching people interact from afar. That’s when I’ve felt “We all are one” or “This is what God is.”
And yet I believe in God and can’t imagine converting to another religion, even though I’m not a very good member of the one I was baptized into. I rather envy your particular experiences.



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Your Name

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm


Rod, I left my Episcopal church to be Catholic, and like you, with no sense of triumphalism. I left mostly because I was truly drawn to the richness of the Catholic faith, but undoubtedly, issues both in my local Episcopal parish and in the national church also led me to exploring the local Catholic church. However, I will say that I truly believe that Jesus and Mary led me in this direction because I needed to go this way for personal reasons. I also believe that they lead others in the opposite direction sometimes (the Episcopalians, along with many other mainstream denominations benefit enormously by having converts from Catholicism.)
Jesus and Mary love all the Christians, all the churches, and in fact, all the people of every faith and no faith. But, we all have different gifts and different roles to fill in the divine plan.



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Lisa

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:17 pm


“Your Name” above is me, Lisa.



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Anna

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:19 pm


My husband and I are at that point in our catechumate where everything seems daunting…that baptism is not the pinnacle, but the start to the mountain. You just keep slogging til death. Not too joyous, eh?
We are converting from Evangelical Protestant upbringings. If there were a stereo-typical Orthodox convert in North America, we be it.



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Hector

posted January 30, 2010 at 1:44 pm


Re: Meaning no disrespect to my Protestant roots, when I entered the Catholic Church, it was like the world shifted from black and white to Technicolor 3D.
I had a similar experience. Though I can’t pinpoint the exact time I became a Christian- I was an atheist (by default, growing up in a nonreligious household) at 13 and considered myself a Christian at 22, though i wasn’t formally baptized for a few more years, but I can’t say exactly when I stopped being one and became the other. But I certainly think I see things in much more clarity now, and that the Christian faith opened up to me whole realms of understanding and experience.
C. S. Lewis is vastly over-quoted in the modern America, and isn’t one of the best Christian thinkers (though he was a very, very good one) but one of his aphorisms (which is posted in certain tunnels of the Boston subway system) stays with me always: “I believe in Christ as I believe in the sun at dawn: not merely because I can see him, but because by His light I can see everything else.”



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Rod Dreher

posted January 30, 2010 at 2:04 pm


Goodness, Charles Curtis, I’m sorry you think I banned you. I never did, and certainly wouldn’t ban you over asking for mercy on the Saracen. It’s a constant source of frustration to me how CAPTCHA mysteriously holds people’s posts for no apparent reason, and usually doesn’t let me know. Sometimes it indicates to me that a post is being held, and I free it up. But that hit or miss quality makes me think that it’s telling me everytime it holds a post. Plainly it is not.
Anyway, that line you dislike — “We know where the Church is, but we don’t know where it isn’t” — is not, to my mind, bullshit. It’s the truth. I first heard it, and have often heard it, spoken by Catholics to explain why they believe that the Roman church is the True Church, but they would not tell Christians of other churches that they aren’t part of the Church universal. It makes sense to me.



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Jon in the Nati

posted January 30, 2010 at 2:25 pm


I think I big difference is between the people who come to one faith tradition (usually Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism, but not always) for different reasons. Some come because of a great love for and absolute willingness to submit themselves to their new faith. This was me, as I never had been a ‘true believer’ in any other faith tradition. Then there are the folks who come to their new faith tradition because of (perceived) deficiencies in their old one. This, in my experience, is where the triumphalism comes in.
I am reminded of a story told by Bishop +KALLISTOS (Ware) in his book THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, in which he tells of a group of former Protestants (Lutherans, I believe) who came to him and asked him to write a book on all the ‘heresies’ of Lutheranism. To His Grace’s dismay, he realized that these folks were driven as much by anger and bitterness toward their old faith as love for their new.



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Jon

posted January 30, 2010 at 3:16 pm


I left the Catholic Church when I was 18. Not with any great anger or bitterness (though this was all connected, indirectly but emotionally, with my brother’s suicide) and I became vaguely “spiritual” during my college years. There remained however an interest and a draw back to Christianity. For one thing, when I joined the online world and participated in the old AOL religious discussion boards, I found many of the arguments of atheists, agnostics and assorted pagans seriously distorted from historical fact. Imperceptibly and without quite realizing it I shifted internally from vaguely spiritual to unchurched Christian.
At 28, and after coming through some unpleasantness in my life, I became much more interested in returning to church and partaking of the sacraments. But I did not want to return to the Catholic Church which I regarded as deficient and unnourishing. Now I lived in Michigan then, and Orthodoxy is rather common in the area around Detroit. On Ford Road in Dearborn, near the mall and assorted other shopping plazas (and my favorite garden store) there was “religion row”, a series of churches all next to one another– Lutheran, Armenian, Orthodox, Evangelical and Catholic (and now a mosque has joined them). I must have passed St Clements Orthodox Church dozens of times and since it did not bill itself wth an ethnic moniker (though it is very Bulgarian and Macedonian in makeup) I decided to check it out one Sunday late in January of 1996. Of course I found the liturgy a bit strange and convoluted. But the people were welcoming, and the priest a warm and cheerful elderly man, and I spent the rest of the day with a feeling of great peace and rightness inside. In that manner I knew I had come home, though to a home I never knew I had. And yes, when I learned the doctrine of the Church, I found that it made sense and represented things I had already believed without being able to articulate them.



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Francis Beckwith

posted January 30, 2010 at 3:28 pm


I wonder why a Lutheran would become Orthodox when Lutheranism properly belongs to the Western Rite in the sense that it is part of the West’s schism. Wouldn’t an Orthodox bishop counsel the Lutheran to first seek communion with that body with which one has split rather than that which one has never belonged?
One reason I never seriously entertained Orthodoxy (though it did cross my mind) is because I had been baptized Catholic and became a Protestant and remained such for nearly 30 years. That is, I saw myself as schismatic with the Western Church and thus had to recommit myself to the Church of my baptism.
I am just thinking out loud here, and could very well not know what I’m talking about.
I am writing this because the conversation here got me wondering whether others have thought along these lines and what sort of insights they may have garnered as a consequence of their reflections.



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Dharmashaiva

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:12 pm


F. Beckwith,
So, you’re asking why an Orthodox bishop would not counsel a prospective convert to Orthodoxy from Lutheranism, to become Roman Catholic?



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B

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:12 pm


I was baptized as a baby, but my upbringing was essentially, “good people go to heaven, bad people go to hell.”
I found the Evangelical church as a teen, and embraced it. Until they told me I couldn’t have friends who weren’t Christian, or that I couldn’t have gay friends. I’m a gay-rights supporter, and I had a fair few Pagan friends. I walked out of that Sunday school class and have never once walked into that church again. To this day, I hate to even look at the building, because of the line it drew between Christianity and myself.
I then went Pagan for quite a few years. Not a more fluffy bunny form, but a very demanding, moralistic form of Paganism which taught many things that were similar to Christianity – Monolatry (one god, many forms,) we are all children of God, and we all must behave in particular moral fashions.
So similar were they, that I eventually realized that while I was angry with Christianity, my heart was still attached to it, to scripture and, most importantly, to Jesus.
So I went to an Episcopal church near my campus. I love it – I found what I wanted. I feel whole, like I found exactly what I’ve always been searching for. It healed me.
But a part of me will always miss Paganism. It helped me to figure out what bothered me about Evangelical Christianity. It gave me time to think about faith, about my faith, who I am and who I want to be. That form of Paganism (which I will never insult,) held my hand until I was ready to go back. My Pagan friends have largely supported and respected my conversion, more so even than my supposedly Christan (read: non-practicing,) family!
In the Episcopal church I have found forgiveness and love, a place where I can have faith without feeling intellectually smothered. Yes, we have problems. But that doesn’t bother me – every church has problems, because all humans have problems.
My boyfriend would like me to be Orthodox – I know that. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to find in the Orthodox church what I have found in the Episcopal church.
Being faithful is always bitter-sweet. I miss some parts of Paganism, which I will never get in Christianity, and I’m not sure I will ever be religiously “good enough”, as an Episcopalian, for my boyfriend and his family.
I’m a prodigal daughter, but there is no feast for me.



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mdavid

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:26 pm


I find conversion stories interesting at times, but a little bemusing as well.
Western types (I mean moderns, not the East/West thing) have an obsession with conversion, an intellectual position of faith based upon a creed. And yes, I generally agree with these people.
However, this conversion of the mind must be followed by the heart and finally the body…or is it conversion? This is why I am generally suspicious of the convert who travels from one Christian denomination to another; the vast, vast majority seem to be intellectual conversions with no cost and little external meaning. More like a friendship change, or switching to a new club. That is, the life of the modern convert rarely changes in today’s cultural environ. This is why one often sees the continual convert – folk drifting from one religious path to another…generally to the path that best suits their lifestyle and emotional context at that moment.
Another factor: the culture is nearly always dominate over religion, making “conversion” a pretty questionable term anyway. An African, Chinese, Swede, and American of today who are each self-proclaimed followers of Christ would likely have far more in common with their own culture on serious moral issues than the traditional Christian teachings of lore or the Scriptures. Imagine polling Africans and Swedes on the morality of homosexuality, for example; I really don’t think their self-proclaimed religion would have much to do with their views. Another way to say it: it’s true that the gate is narrow, and few (especially those belonging to wealthy and powerful cultures) find it…and this includes converts.
Final point: one of the conceits of modern man is believing we are each a raw individual who makes choices free and clear, and refuse to accepet that we are a web of interlocking families and friends. In other words, few people “convert” on their own – they are usually just taking the easiest fork in the social road that presents itself. The converts of interest to me are those whose conversion means a change in their life so radical they are drug along against the tide – it’s more like a once in a lifetime commitment.
Beckwith, Wouldn’t an Orthodox bishop counsel the Lutheran to first seek communion with that body with which one has split rather than that which one has never belonged?
Catholics accept the sacraments of the Orthodox, but not the other way around; an Orthodox bishop would be remiss in such counsel.



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Dharmashaiva

posted January 30, 2010 at 4:29 pm


B,
You might be a Christo-Pagan. (Google it, if you would like.)



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B

posted January 30, 2010 at 5:03 pm


I’ve seen Christo-Paganism. I’m an all-or-nothing kind of girl, and I don’t find the arguments for Christo-Paganism particularly compelling or intellectually honest.



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Stephanie

posted January 30, 2010 at 5:13 pm


Re: Rod’s statement…”Anyway, that line you dislike — “We know where the Church is, but we don’t know where it isn’t” — is not, to my mind, bullshit. It’s the truth. I first heard it, and have often heard it, spoken by Catholics to explain why they believe that the Roman church is the True Church, but they would not tell Christians of other churches that they aren’t part of the Church universal. It makes sense to me.”
As a lifelong protestant, this makes absolutely no sense to me. My mother was Catholic for many years, then stated that she came to a genuine faith in Christ after she stopped going to mass. She raised us children as ardent protestants, but is now returning to Catholicism after 30+ years. It’s beyond confusing to me, even though I’m an adult.
Catholics and most protestants believe so differently about what it takes for a person to receive salvation that I don’t understand how a Catholic person would hesitate to tell a protestant that they are not part of the Church universal. Catholicism teaches that baptism and receiving the sacraments are required for salvation (and thus being part of the church), correct? And Pope Benedict himself stated that there is no salvation outside the Church–a sentiment I have found again and again in Catholic writings as I have tried to make sense of my mother’s flip-flopping faith.
Since our theology differs so radically, what’s the point in refusing to draw a line in the sand in terms of who constitutes the true church and who does not? I’m not trying to be divisive, I am serious. If Catholic theology teaches that I’m going to hell, I wish my Catholic friends and family would at least be honest with me about that.
I live in an area that’s 80% Catholic (I’m sure you can guess where) so this is something I deal with regularly, family issues aside.



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B

posted January 30, 2010 at 5:16 pm


I’ve seen Christ-Paganism. I don’t find the arguments for it particularly compelling or intellectually honest.
Not that I think they’re lying – they (as most people,) certainly believe what they say.



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Hector

posted January 30, 2010 at 5:34 pm


B,
Glad to see another convert to the Episcopal Church. Our national leadership today is, of course, a ship of fools, but there have always been situations throughout Christian history (look at the Arian bishops of the fourth century or the Poisoner Popes of the Borgia era) and somehow Christianity survived. At the local level most Episcopalian Christians are, in my experience, as sincere about their faith as anyone else. I wish you well.



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Rod Dreher

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:13 pm


Stephanie, here’s the difference: the Catholic Church is willing to say, “This is what you must do to be saved.” But it is not willing (or no longer willing) to say, “And if you don’t do it, there’s no hope for you.” I think this is a wise and truthful way to look at it. I cannot in good conscience say that any particular person is in hell, though I do believe hell exists, and that unrepentant sinners are likely to end up there. The “church,” in this sense, is the Body of Christ. God’s mercy is so great that it is possible that people who never formally accepted Christ might in some sense be united to him because their faith, such as it was, was like the widow’s mite. They gave all they had.
I find that a humane and hopeful approach to salvation, and I don’t see that it turns one into a universalist. I do believe Jesus when he said that he was the “way, the truth and the life,” and that “no one comes to the Father but through me.” I desire that everyone would come to Christ. But I believe that it is possible non-Christians, or Christians from other churches, may know him salvifically, in spite of their error.



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Quiddity

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:41 pm


Rod writes: “Catholicism had formed the core of my identify for 13 years”
I’m fascinated by that phenomenon. I’m a skeptic, so let’s get that out of the way. My understanding is that religions have a belief in god(s), present a trajectory that people of varying (un)worthiness will take, miscellaneous stories of how the faithful have dealt with setbacks and triumphs, there’s usually a moral code, and perhaps a world view (e.g. creation to end times).
How do any of those elements “form the core of one’s identity”? I would think the core of one’s identity is, well, just there. It’s you. This identity interacts with its experiences and its understanding of the world (with religion a key component).
Rod, in this case, seems to be saying that Catholicism actually changed (“formed”) the core of his identity. Wow. Talk about overriding one’s internal self (aka consciousness). What was that like? I’ve never experienced anything like that, at least none that I’m aware of.
If Catholicism – or any another religion – forms one’s identity, how does anyone end up leaving a particular faith?



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Stephanie

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:41 pm


Rod,
Thanks, that clarifies. It actually sounds a lot like what many protestants believe about everyone from Catholics and Orthodox to Pentecostals and others. LOL A little irony in that, I suppose!



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Stephanie

posted January 30, 2010 at 6:46 pm


[clarifying] I’m aware that Pentecostals are also protestant, I’m merely lumping them in with groups who consider themselves Christian but in fact have great differences in their theology of salvation, if that makes sense.



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Deacon John M. Bresnahan

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:01 pm


I’m not sure how to categorize myself. My Irish Catholic father made sure I attended just enough Sunday School classes to qualify for First Communion and Confirmation (he never went to Mass). In between I more frequently went to my mother’s Protestant Church. As an older teen-ager I opted for the Catholic Faith on issues of doctrinal Truth and am a Catholic deacon today. But when I read conversion to Catholicism stories I frequently feel like I am reading about myself. I guess I am just a typical American Christian who was a seeker and finally found what I was looking for. I think there are a lot of us. And I don’t think polls don’t do a very good job of figuring us out.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:36 pm


Our story is simple. We were raised Catholic, and were active in our Catholic elementary and high schools, Catholic college and local parishes. One year we discovered the Catholic Charismatic Renewal, an event that transformed our lives. Through the Renewal we came to know an Eastern Catholic Jesuit who linked the Renewal to the Hesychastic Tradition of the Orthodox Church.
One year we found ourselves wondering where to attend Easter services, as we’d often seek out better services than the dry following of the Missalette paid for by the local funeral parlor. We knew this Jesuit would be at a relatively nearby Eastern Catholic parish, so we went there. After all, how long could the service be, right?
Three-and-a-half hours later God had dropped a house on us. We had never experienced anything like it! Paschal Matins was a cacophony of joyful praise, followed by the Homily of St. John Chrysostom which summed up why we are Christians, followed by a Liturgy that was beyond anything we’d ever experienced. We were overwhelmed.
We started attending that parish, but when traveling found Roman Catholic parishes pale by comparison and so started attending Orthodox parishes when out-of-town. Our daughter went to college, and attended at the local Orthodox parish, eventually talking to the priest about her situation and, after a bit of quizzing, was told “you have the faith, everything else is political.”
She converted first. We followed not out of any antipathy for Catholicism but out of convenience. We’d made the shift from Western to Eastern years earlier, it was not a very long stretch.
And here, to us, is the major difference between West and East. Western theology and liturgy are logical and linear, while Eastern theology and liturgy are mystical and non-linear. Orthodoxy simply fits better with the non-linear nature of how we live our lives today.
That first Pascha we sat below an Icon of a Saint we’d never heard of, St. Seraphim of Sarov. On the Icon was this inscription: “Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a Thousand will be Saved around you.” All by itself that reflected our lifetime of experience in the faith, because it is who we are that matters both to others and to God, not whether-or-not we can properly explain the Hypostatic Union or Papal Infallibility.



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mdavid

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:41 pm


Rod, the Catholic Church is willing to say, “This is what you must do to be saved.” But it is not willing (or no longer willing) to say, “And if you don’t do it, there’s no hope for you.”
“[N]o longer” willing? I didn’t know Catholicism ever believed “there’s no hope” for certain people, and then reversed this doctrine.
I believe that it is possible non-Christians, or Christians from other churches, may know him salvifically, in spite of their error.
Those even remotely familiar with Scripture or Tradition would have to agree. For example, Matthew 25 makes it painfully clear that some who claim Christ know Him not, and some who think they don’t know Him actually do.



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Jeremy

posted January 30, 2010 at 7:55 pm


Rod,
I empathize with what you’ve said a lot.
I am currently in the process of converting to Orthodoxy. I was raised in a evangelical family by a very devout mother and a father who is also the pastor of my church. I have never harbored any bitterness against protestantism in the least, and nothing was a bigger barrier to my developing a desire to become Orthodox than the triumphalism of Orthodox Christians. That said, many Orthodox are not triumphalistic and their attitude has been blessing to me on my way.
I know I will never be triumphalistic Orthodoxyt for two reasons: (1) because it was never the problems in evangelicalism lead me to my decision, and (2) because the circumstances of my conversion are less than ideal. You see, I entertained little more than an intellectual curiosity about Orthodoxy until I started dating an Orthodox girl.
Now please don’t get me wrong, my conversion isn’t mercenary. I take my faith very seriously as the most important part of my life, and so I knew couldn’t become Orthodox unless I found it to be the best and true from of Christianity. Fortunately I had a pretty ecumenical view of Christianity (I’d never particularly liked to call myself a Protestant, but rather merely a Christian), so I had no objection to exploring Orthodoxy and potentially considering conversion.
Immediately I found much that attracted me. You said, Rod, that when you entered the Catholic Church “it was like the world shifted from black and white to Technicolor 3D.” That’s exactly how I feel about Orthodoxy. It is so much richer than Protestantism, it has so much ancient wisdom to offer. Protestants have a fairly longstanding tradition, but evangelicals delve into it much at all.
That said, I found something in Orthodoxy that repelled me: the inability of certain Orthodox to recognize followers of Christ outside their own fold. As I became steadily more convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy, this turned into a spiritual struggle within myself. Was my faith up to this time genuine? Had my relationship with God and all my religious experiences growing up been real? These doubts tormented me.
Eventually I came to realize that I couldn’t accept that. If the most real thing in my life was false, then what else could possibly make any claim to be reality? Fortunately, I slowly discovered that the uncharitable outlook toward other Christians, which I had taken to be the official stance of the Orthodox church, is in fact a minority opinion. By and large, Orthodox believers do not deny the veracity of the faith of other Christians. I am now firm and secure in the belief that my previous faith, and that of my parents, was the true faith in so far was it was in accord with the revelation of Jesus Christ to his (Orthodox) Church. It’s so plain and obvious that it’s almost a tautology: to the extent that a Christian’s faith does not differ from the True Faith of Holy Orthodoxy, to that extent it is the True Faith.” Of course, no matter how accurate a Protestants beliefs could be, one would still lack the vital connection to the Church found in the sacraments. Yet, as no Orthodox Christian could deny, God is capable of acting however he chooses, and the Holy spirit may bestow grace without the sign of the sacrament. Personally, my own experience convinces me that the Holy Spirit VERY often does just that. The sacraments are indispensable, everyone should and must receive them, but nothing is impossible with God.
So here I am today, a catechumen, and a very happy one. My priest said me the other day that the most
important thing, my relationship with God, I already have. He said he wanted to make it clear to me that though all the “other stuff” is good and holy, that that is the essential thing. He had little knowledge what I’ve gone through, so he was just speaking from his heart (he was a convert himself once, though, so I suppose he had some idea from his own experience). I am excited to become Orthodox. I know that the Orthodox practice of the faith will provide me with bottomless wisdom and resources for growing in the Lord and fighting the good fight against sin. It already has.
One word of advice to anyone exploring Orthodoxy: Don’t ever go to the internet for your information. Unless a particular webpage is recommended by a friend, just don’t do it. You’ll find nothing but fundamentalist cooks and crackpots.



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AnotherBeliever

posted January 30, 2010 at 8:24 pm


I would like to pose a question. What is conversion? I think there may be two types here. Rod, I think your conversion to Orthodoxy was mostly the second kind. Or maybe a mix of the two kinds.
True conversion is a conversion of the self. I would suggest that not all switches to different versions of Christianity, or even to different faiths entirely, constitute a true conversion or transformation of the self.
Many religious conversions ARE true conversions. They are transformative. There’s a moment you can point to where it happened. They subjectively FEEL like something has truly shifted within you, a gyroscope righting itself. Such events can be strongly emotional. Though not always: I first personally committed to Christ, the emotion was mostly just a sense of clarity.
But just as not all religious conversions can properly be called conversions, not all conversions are religious. People who’ve had a near brush with death, either in a car accident or from a dangerous version of cancer or serious heart attack, often describe such an experience.
I’ve had this kind of life conversion. As some of you may know, I lost two grandfathers and my Dad in quick succession in the spring of 2007. My grandfathers both had serious cancer, and were in their mid-70s. I was somewhat prepared for that. But my father’s death was completely unexpected. I felt like the ground had been pulled out from under me.
By September, my unit deployed to Iraq again. This time, we would be short-handed, with double the mission we’d had our first tour. We were warned there would be few days off for the duration. And the duration would be 15 months!
I had not even gotten over the initial shock of my Dad’s loss. Grief is one of those emotions that hits you like an 18 wheeler. Or something much bigger. It’s like falling into an undertow in the ocean. It is inexorable, primal. While you are in its grip you are powerless. All you can do is endure it, and wait for the intensity to pass. Blocking it out or ignoring it is not advised. But I had to block it out, to a very large extent, just to function on the job. There was no time to grieve. We worked twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week.
I was pushed past my limits. I won’t call it depression, because it was clearly situational – it was grief, mixed with intense pressure, mixed with incoming rocket and mortar rounds by night. And it was more than psychological. Spiritually, I had the experience that there was literally no shield between me and this raging living darkness, despite all my prayers. It was like physical pain, almost.
I won’t describe it any further. Suffice it to say, I think it nearly broke me. But I got help (my fellow soldiers insisted, thank God.) And time passed, which was the main thing.
I came out of this experience with a new sense of humility. I’ve been pushed past my limits. I’ve learned one important thing: my strength is nothing. I am powerless, in fact. As the Muslims put it, “There is no strength and no salvation save in God.” My strength even in everyday life is barely more than an illusion. I guess it’s that way for most of us. Most of us just don’t know it. Life has to hit you up side the head for you to realize the truth. The people you see on the street, homeless, with that bleak look in their eyes – they know it. People who’ve gone through a 12 step program, they know it. The young kids in war zones, orphaned, hopeless and hungry – they know it too.
My first conversion experience was religious. But though I thought it was the end of the matter, it was just the beginning. Becoming like Christ is the goal of following him. It’s a long road. The renewing and transforming of our hearts and wills and minds can be painful. It can be stop and go. Progress will take more than a lifetime, if my pace at this so far is any indication.
In the end, this was a gift from God. I have lost the distance I once had with hurting people the world tends to dismiss or try to ignore. God’s mercy to me was not that he eased my when I asked for that. It was to learn the necessity for mercy, from the inside out.



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Everhopeful

posted January 30, 2010 at 8:28 pm


Stupid Chris:
Thank you so much for your story. It makes a lot of sense to me, esp. the part about “God had dropped a house on us” during the liturgy. My husband and I attended an Orthodox church for the first time last year, and we felt the same way. We have had a hard time going back to the Catholic church since then. I’m a life-long Catholic who until just recently has worked my entire life within the Catholic church (chiefly in the fields of academia and the press). All of my friends are there and all of my family. My husband doesn’t have such a hard time with this development since he converted as an adult and has never worked in a Catholic institution. I don’t want to leave Catholicism, but neither can I made myself attend Mass anymore. The problem is beauty. Michael Ward in his book Planet Narnia said it very well: “The wise man does not think only in the category of truth; the category of beauty is also worth thinking in.” I believe that both Catholicism and Orthodoxy have the truth, even if they disagree at certain points about what it is. At this time, however, only one of them has beauty, and I need it.
If I convert, like C. S. Lewis, I will be a sad, dejected convert, mourning what I left behind (which is substantial) in order to gain something even better.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 30, 2010 at 9:07 pm


the Catholic Church is willing to say, “This is what you must do to be saved.” But it is not willing (or no longer willing) to say, “And if you don’t do it, there’s no hope for you.”
I wonder how you mean this, Rod. Because you can’t do anything that will save you, and neither can I, and neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy teaches that you can. In fact that’s a heresy, long recognized, long condemned.
So you must mean something else, but what?



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Rod Dreher

posted January 30, 2010 at 10:29 pm


Chris: I wonder how you mean this, Rod. Because you can’t do anything that will save you, and neither can I, and neither Roman Catholicism nor Orthodoxy teaches that you can. In fact that’s a heresy, long recognized, long condemned.
So you must mean something else, but what?
Chris, I’m talking about the old teaching that “Outside the church there is no salvation”, which if you’ll follow the link will see that it has been repeatedly articulated over the centuries by the Roman pontiffs to mean that those who do not submit formally to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church cannot be saved. The RC church now understands the teaching in a different way.
My understanding is that we can do something that saves us, namely surrender to the Holy Spirit. He will not save us without our consent. My point here was simply to point out that for many centuries the Roman church held that to be saved, it was necessary for one to formally unite to the Roman church. I had in mind in particular the papal bull “Unam sanctam.”



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Orthocath

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:04 pm


I, like many others here, have had my own twists and turns in my religious journey. I’ve had both the joy and pain in religious conversion. When I realized that the New Testament teaches the Deity of Christ and left the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there was tremendous joy, despite losing so many dear friends. Similarly, when I entered the Catholic Church (and later transferred to the Byzantine Catholic Church), there was joy in finding the Ancient Christian Church. The journey to Orthodoxy from Byzantine Catholicism was different, however. I was convinced that Orthodoxy was a fuller expression of the Eastern Christian faith and that Byzantine Catholicism was more of a shadow than substance of it. Many of my B C friends felt the same way, but were staying behind for their own reasons. There were bumps in the journey, a priestless parish, and a few people I met in Orthodoxy who were mean-spirited in their disdain for the Catholic Church. Not trusting myself to a spiritual director, I returned to Catholicism a year later but my heart ached for the East. Ten years later I visited my old Orthodox parish (which now has a full-time priest) for Exaltation of the Cross and felt like I was hit by a spiritual 2 x 4. I knew immediately I was being called back home. I contacted the priest and began the process of returning to Orthodoxy. My wife is now a catechumen and we should be received back together in the next few weeks. There’s both joy and pain in this for me. I raised my children (now grown) in the Catholic Church and this puts a distance between us. But, joy in being able to see clearly God’s direction in my life and being able to immerse myself in the worship cycle of the Eastern Church. The journey still continues and I beg prayers from all believers here.



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Stephanie

posted January 30, 2010 at 11:18 pm


The term “what you must do to be saved” originates in Acts 16 with the story of the Philippian jailer. Here it is:
About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. Suddenly there was such a violent earthquake that the foundations of the prison were shaken. At once all the prison doors flew open, and everybody’s chains came loose. The jailer woke up, and when he saw the prison doors open, he drew his sword and was about to kill himself because he thought the prisoners had escaped. But Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We are all here!”
The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?”
They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved—you and your household.”



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Shelley

posted January 31, 2010 at 12:43 am


Once again you ahve given word to the exact experience my husband and I had when converting to Orthodoxy. We felt complete and at peace, but als grieved the loss of Catholicism….the loss of family relationships…the loss of a career….the loss of a few friends who couldn’t deal with it….and most of all, the loss of a community that we had been an entegral part of for 16 years. Joy and loss. I am beginning to think that this might be the absolute perfect description of all of life’s transitions, moving, the birth of a child, the marriage of a child to someone. Of course some experiences are almost all loss. But truly I have never been able to express in words how much our conversion hurt along side the joy, completion, wholeness, and rest that becoming Orhtodox gave us.
Very good. Thank you.
Shelley



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Wandering Aramean

posted January 31, 2010 at 1:01 am


It’s because I was defeated, and had my intellectual and spiritual pride shattered.
That’s why I converted too. Although with me, my intellectual break with Protestantism came first; then it came down to deciding whether to go East or West. The process took about 3 years (pretty much the whole time I was in college), and I found it very traumatic. I had been planning to become a Protestant missionary, you see…Converting for me was like starting theologically from scratch, at least initially. Everything was suddenly subject to question. I went from feeling like some kind of expert on Christianity to a total ignoramus. In reality, and in retrospect, I had been an ignoramus all along; I was merely made aware of that fact. When I emerged from the fire I was definitely chastened and humbled by the whole experience.
This was partially because, being young and stupid, I handled it with a lack of finesse and lost a lot of Protestant friends in the process. And my whole identity had been bound up with being Evangelical Protestant…suddenly I had nothing to talk about with my old friends, we had started talking past each other, and didn’t really have enough else in common to sustain our friendships.
So there were really two things that made it traumatic: the intellectual aspect of having certainties swept from beneath my feet, and the relational aspect of losing a common ground for friendships.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 31, 2010 at 1:43 am


those who do not submit formally to the authority of the Roman Catholic Church cannot be saved.
Got it.
Of course Orthodoxy approaches the question from a different direction. There’s no salvation outside the Church, but who defines that? Going from memory it was Bishop Timothy Ware quoting a wise Bishop who said “We know who is within the Church, but what we don’t know is who is outside the Church.” That is, we know who is formalized within the Church, but not those who keep the law “as if it were written on their heart.” Orthodoxy proclaims that surety is found within the communion, and that God remains free to save whomever God wishes without the approval of the Church.



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the stupid Chris

posted January 31, 2010 at 1:49 am


My understanding is that we can do something that saves us, namely surrender to the Holy Spirit.
Hmmm. But that’s different from saying that one must join this-or-that Church, isn’t it?
That the Catholic Church no longer claims that one MUST be Roman in order to be saved might well be a sign of acknowledgement that the Holy Spirit blows where it wills, right? Why must it be a sign of weakness or loss of something other than error?



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Anonymous

posted January 31, 2010 at 2:36 am


Rod, a while back you wrote this about converts:
“Converts have something to prove and arguments to win, while cradle [adherents] do not.”
I recently joined the Anglican communion. I feel like it could have happened two years earlier – I had been attending Anglican church for six years already. The day/week/month/year that I joined wasn’t an especially transformative experience, no more so than the previous five (actually, 15) years had been. I almost felt like I was publicly rubber-stamping what had already unofficially been the case.
But I get very turned off by “converts” and I don’t want to be identified as one. (The fact that I moved so slowly and gradually from what I grew up with to where I am now probably helps in this regard.) Part of the reason I joined the Anglican communion is because it doesn’t (at least in my perception) go around claiming to be the only true Christian communion. It’s surprising how often I end up defending the branch of Christianity that I grew up in – from the criticisms of people who have also left it for other branches of Christianity.



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Bluegrass Up

posted January 31, 2010 at 8:47 am


Rod, something in me resonates with you deeply. I’m a lifelong mainline Protestant– in fact a lifelong Presbyterian, and a Presbyterian of the old, staunch, traditional variety.
At the same time, since my late teens– in other words, for the past 35 years– I have been powerfully drawn to Roman Catholic spirituality. Yes, the greater depth, the deeper texture, the greater richness of it. It would be no exaggeration to say that inwardly, in terms of spiritual practice, I have long been more than half Catholic.
At the same time, for a complicated tangle of reasons, it’s quite unlikely that I will ever convert. I disagree with some of the claims of the Roman Catholic church, including the degree of authority it claims for itself; my ecclesiology remains firmly Protestant. Theologically I’d be willing to concede that the Catholics got certain things right which Protestantism overall has gotten wrong; but also I think many Protestants have gotten certain things very much right on which Catholicism continues to stumble. Also it helps greatly that I’ve found a Presbyterian congregation where I now live, which is solid, staunch, traditional, and a genuinely loving bunch of people.
So, neither fish nor fowl, I continue to limp along. There is more than one way to be torn.



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Hector

posted January 31, 2010 at 9:03 am


Bluegrass Up,
Your experience is a lot like mine- I’m also drawn to some aspects of Catholic spirituality and beliefs, but I see some good aspects about Protestantism too (most specifically, the belief in individual interpretation of scripture, and the denial of papal primacy, which could be called the definitive essence of Protestantism). ‘Neither fish nor fowl’ is often what I feel like.
Might I make a friendly suggestion that you look into Anglicanism? It’s true the national leadership of the Episcopal Chruch is a ship of fools right now, but that is manifestly not always true at the local level, and you can find many individual high-church or Anglo-Catholic parishes that- in my experience- synthesize the best aspects of Catholic and Protestant Christianity, and in which you will find a lot of good, sincere, and faithful Christians trying to be, as you say, ‘more than half Catholic’ outside the gates of Rome. Anglo-Catholics tend to believe (for the most part) in things like private confession, fasting, honouring St. Mary, the other Marian doctrines, purgatory, and so forth, as well as a more ‘ritualistic’ form of worship.
Anonymous,
Welcome, again, to the Anglican communion.



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JLF

posted January 31, 2010 at 9:06 am


The bottom line, I believe, is God’s statement, repeated from the Books of Moses through the Minor Prophets: “If with all your heart you truly seek me, you shall ever surely find me.” It is upon that belief that I rest my hope of salvation, not membership in this church or that, or of adherence to one creed or another. As Paul wrote to the Christians at Corinth, “For now we see through a glass darkly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully.” Ultimately, it is not whether or not my beliefs or actions satisfy the various demands of another person or institution, but whether they satisfy God.



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Francis Beckwith

posted February 1, 2010 at 4:09 pm


So, you’re asking why an Orthodox bishop would not counsel a prospective convert to Orthodoxy from Lutheranism, to become Roman Catholic?
No, I’m asking why an Orthodox bishop–fully aware of Lutheranism historical connection to Catholicism–would not ask the potential convert why he had not considered Catholicism.
It is “Catholicism” not “Roman Catholicism,” since the Lutheran could join any number of Easter Rite Catholic Churches that are in Communion with Rome. A Byzantine Catholic is not a Roman Catholic.



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Jeremy

posted February 1, 2010 at 8:58 pm


“It is “Catholicism” not “Roman Catholicism,” since the Lutheran could join any number of Easter Rite Catholic Churches that are in Communion with Rome. A Byzantine Catholic is not a Roman Catholic.”
Yes, but Orthodox and many Protestants prefer to say Roman Catholic for all Christians in communion with Rome. This is because (speaking as an Orthodox Christian) we believe that our church is the Holy Catholic church. Therefore, to refer to others as catholics is a misnomer unless it is prefaced the word Roman.
As to your main point, I see where your coming from, but an Orthodox priest would scarcely counsel anyone to join the Roman Catholic church, because they do not believe is not in *complete* accord with the ancient apostolic church, whereas the Orthodox church is. The differences may seem small, but they do matter.
However, I would agree with you 100% if you suggested that Lutherans should be advised to look into an Orthodox church of the Western Rite. These are churches that are in full communion with the Eastern Orthodox church, but us western liturgical forms that would be much more familiar to a Lutheran. They are sort of the Orthodox equivalent of Byzantine Catholic Churches (but in reverse). Here’s a link if your interested: http://www.westernorthodox.com/



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Shira

posted February 2, 2010 at 12:05 pm


At age 40 I became a Jew. I had been a practicing Quaker for 25 or so years before finally reaching the understanding that G-d had been gently petitioning for my Jewish worship all my life.
Eventually I wound up attending services at what would become my synagogue, where I saw for the first time the way I believe He was asking me to praise Him. It was weird and hard to adjust to the idea of taking on all of Judaism, but I found some bravery at last and did it. Once I got the guts, the rewards came showering down on me. Many, many blessings.
When the Israelites stood at the shore of the Sea of Reeds, it took a courageous man to step into the water in order for it to become dry land beneath his feet, and that’s what it felt like. It wasn’t painful, but it was pretty scary.
Growth is almost always painful. In my case, becoming a Jew was an instance of organic growth. G-d wants, I believe, all people to become more completely themselves and then to set about helping Him repair the world, no matter what their religion or non-religion. From a formless lump of clay, in my case, He fashioned a vessel. And a vessel must be useful.



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Janice Fox

posted February 7, 2010 at 12:42 am


JLF: Amen to what you have written.
Rod: I think you made a good choice in an OCA church. I attended such a church for 10 years plus, even after the death of my first husband. Although I did not convert for reasons of conscience, I could see that it was family oriented and a good place to raise children.
All those good things that I learned in Eastern Orthodoxy, I took with me when I left for finally the Anglican Catholic Church which I still like. Icons, fasting, the Trisagion etc. are worthwhile aids in living the Christian life.



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matheau moore

posted February 14, 2010 at 4:39 pm


Re: those who have brought up the hypothetical question of a Lutheran becoming eastern Orthodox versus becoming western Catholic – There are a number of parishes under the Orthodox Church that are western rite, not eastern rite. Yes, there is no western rite (lutheran) Orthodox because that is not a pre-schism Orthodox understanding of the faith, however, there are currently western rite Orthodox of both the (slightly revised) tridentine rite and the sarum rite of the celtic churches that pre-date the Orthodox/Catholic schism. For instance, both rites are represented inside the Orthodox Church in my state of New Jersey. The Roman Catholic Church has it’s eastern rite churches. The Patriarch of Moscow, Saint Tikhon, who later suffered under the communist yoke, approved the western rite liturgies as did Saint John Maximovich of San Francisco. It is not a subject of great controversy in the Orthodox Church that there can be a multiplicity of local variations in liturgy (we already had multiple liturgies; Saint John Chrysostom, Saint Basil, Saint James etc,) but it is important that these liturgies do not include content that is contrary to the dogmas of the Orthodox Church. In summation I simply would like to point out that The Orthodox Church need not be seen as eastern, and one’s participation in it does not require an “eastern mindset.” I write this as a former Pentecostal Christian who did eventually convert to the Orthodox Church. As Rod says, it is not a matter of converting to any Church per se as that can indeed become one of the manifold idols anyone can become ensnared by in their journey towards God, what I find in the Orthodox church is simply a “full toolbox” with nothing subtracted and nothing added from what the Apostles handed down to us in both writing and by word of mouth, as Saint Paul said in his epistles.



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treebeard

posted February 14, 2010 at 5:39 pm


Wonderful post, Rod. This isn’t your main point, but I was surprised to hear you say this: “I don’t think I know anybody who is angry at their former churches, though I could be wrong there.” I’m not sure why you haven’t met more people like that. I certain count as one angry at my former church, and quite often when I’ve shared my experiences I find out that there’s a lot of that type of anger out there. I can fully relate to your description of God giving you a second chance, and yet having to deal with the trauma of leaving. You give the analogy of a shipwreck victim discovering an island and at last feeling safe. But what if your ship didn’t wreck, but you were abused and violated on the ship, and then tossed overboard (figuratively speaking)? That is, the trauma you endured took place on the ship even before you endured the treacherous waters afterwards. I’m stretching the analogy a little bit, but someone who goes through that type of experience might not trust the next “ship” that comes in. Anyway, your description of religous conversion is very accurate. My first (born-again) conversion was wonderful and powerful. But my leaving of a cultish church, and then at last stumbling into a healthy church “home,” was not victorious at all. I converted from one type of Christian church into another (both could be called “evangelical”), and I’m just thankful that my faith has been restored. Sorry to sound so self-absorbed. But there are many Christians out there who have bitterness at their former churches, and it takes a long time to get that bitterness out of one’s system. Thanks for sharing, as always.



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Sepp

posted February 15, 2010 at 9:59 am


I sympathize very much with some of Rod’s observations. I was born and raised in a nominally Catholic family. We didn’t practice that much when I was growing up, but if it was going to be anything, it was going to be Catholic. More foramtive for me than that was where I physically spent much of my childhood, in a tiny Bavarian village called Gachenbach. There was a parish church in the center of town, and just on the outskirts, a short walk from my grandmother’s house, a pilgrimage shrine dedicated to the BVM. Both churches were physically rich experiences. One is a rococo masterpiece, the other an old parish warhorse filled with ancient paintings. Both places were alive with color, scents, candles silently sputtering, and a quiet physical coolness. When I first met hard-core Protestant friends in my teens and went to their services as a guest I was shocked at how devoid they were of beauty, but then Baptists in particular are raised with a different aesthetic of faith. To them colors and incense are usually considered silly distractions. I came under intense pressure to convert, but instead I turned back to Catholicism with renewed and robust energy, deepened my knowledge and sharpened my skills in apologetics. What eventually disillusioned me with Catholicism was two things: the vacuous Protestantization of churches and the Mass, and the (what I can only call) evil hypocrisy of a hierarchy riddled with gay priests and bishops blaming the clergy abuse scandals on homosexuals. I am sorry to sound so judgmental, but to me this last was particularly intolerable. Then a friend invited me to Orthodox vespers on a Saturday evening. I didn’t go back for years, but it stuck in my memory. When I finally felt I could no longer in good faith remain in the Catholic Church, I began to explore Orthodoxy, and discovered, not an ossified fossil of the past but a startlingly rich and beautiful world, steeped in a profoundly Trinity-centered worship that is a gateway to a thriving mysticism. It was like Rod’s description of walking into a 3D Technicolor world, after walking in a black & white desert. The culture shock was not as intense because much of the liturgy, ecclesiology and doctrine are similar (though not identical) to Catholicism, but it did mean learning new traditions and modes of worship, such as prostrations and fasting (at which I am hugely imperfect), and participating in a powerful fellowship. I truly feel I have come home, and more importantly, wherever I go, I take this home with me in my heart. In this sense there was nothing traumatic about the conversion experience. I continue to pray for the best for my former church and wish ferventy for reunification of the apostolic churches.



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Gordon

posted February 15, 2010 at 11:49 am


My personal “conversion” story is a “conversion” from agnosticism to active Christianity through the Episcopal Church. It is a pleasure to find a faith that combines both the comfort of ritual with a religious belief that accepts and embraces the advances in our understanding of our world and ourselves – advances that seem to be forthrightly opposed by other faiths.
I have many fellow parishioners who have travelled the same journey from an opposite direction – they used to be Catholics but became estranged from the church’s dogmatism and refusal to accept advances in our understanding of our world and ourselves.
There are many paths to enlightenment and belief, and I acknowledge and accept those whose disenchantment leads to them on a more “conservative” or “traditional” path. I just wanted to point out that there are other trends in personal paths of faith too.



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PatricktheRogue

posted February 16, 2010 at 4:11 pm


Your experience rings true to me, as a former Catholic, later non-denominational Christian, now agostic. I was raised Catholic, but within the Charismatic movement, which led to attending a non-denominational Pentecostal-type church for a few years, before trying to return to Catholicism. In my journey back into Catholicism, I finally realized that my struggles with all forms of the Christian faith were that, at my core, I simply did not believe most of what could be called orthodox Christian dogma. I won’t go into the details here, to be in line with your posting rules, but I wanted to add that I felt, and still feel, great sorrow when I reflect that I do not belong to the church anymore. I don’t feel anger, though at times when I think of how much time I spent agonizing over what I now consider to be silly moral quandaries, I feel sad that my relatives continue to waste their lives fretting over adhering to (to me) a bunch of ludicrous strictures. But mostly I feel sad.
At first, when I realized that I actually considered the existence of God to be improbable at best, I was in a headspin, completely disoriented, like staring into an abyss. But that soon subsided and I felt exhilarated at a new found freedom, to follow reason wherever it led and not to be bound to rationalizing everything in the modern world to fall in line with my beliefs. Those dual sides of the experience still are with me today, many years later – sadness at leaving a grand tradition, but exhilaration at heaving off the chains of religious dogma.



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