In 1993, I was chrismated and joined the Eastern Orthodox Church. But only lately has it dawned on me that I must have strained friendships over the years due to my vocal enthusiasm for my adopted church.
I can’t be the only one to have done this. Converts to Orthodoxy usually precede their decision with voluminous reading and research, so their friends must endure agitated lectures on church history, ancient heresies, and what words mean in Greek. Those friends benefit, no doubt, from this opportunity to practice patience and long-suffering. But why is our kind so characteristically obnoxious?
The first, most obvious explanation is that some people simply are obnoxious to start with. But that can’t be the case with me, so let’s press on.
A second theory is that converts of any sort have a tendency to exuberance that is wearying to outsiders. That’s surely a factor, but I think there’s something else going on, more specific to Orthodox converts.
Here’s a clue to a third possibility. I can remember, after I’d been Orthodox a few years, developing an increasing sense of tension or frustration. At the beginning, I thought I knew what I was getting into. My husband had been an Episcopal priest for 16 years, and we had gradually moved from an evangelical-style “low church” to the more liturgically-fancy “high church.” Orthodoxy looked like taking that escalator up one more floor. There was plenty of ceremony and beauty, but without the mainline churches’ affection for keeping up-to-date.
It took me a few years to sense that there was a whole other something going on. It took awhile because I grasped it through hearing the hymns of the church year, week in and week out. Everyone associates Orthodox worship with sensory richness, but it’s also rich in theological content. The basic framework of services like the Divine Liturgy or Vespers doesn’t change much, but every day of the liturgical year provides prayers for saints and feasts that can be added to that framework. And these prayers are jam-packed. For example, on the Feast of the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council, the chanter launches into this:
Of the Father before the morning star Thou wast begotten from the womb without mother before all ages, even though Arius did believe Thee to be created, not God, classing Thee in ignorance and impudence with creatures…
That’s just a fraction of a thorough march through what happened at the first Council of Nicaea, and why it was important (including Arius’ unpleasant death from digestive indisposition: “his bowels were torn by a divine hook…in a repulsive manner his soul came out”). Hymns like these offer quite a theological education to anyone who comes to services, and if you didn’t catch it all, there’s a good chance they’re going to sing it two more times.
It takes a while to get it, because it’s received by a process of immersion, by soaking in a context of worship. It’s not something you can figure out by studying the Church Fathers. Each of them had his idiosyncrasies, and they regularly disagreed. But they all came together in worship, and were shaped by the same hymns and prayers, the appointed Scripture readings, preaching, and the “picture Bible” of iconography. Rich worship taught the faith to literate and illiterate, peasant and emperor, and it’s essentially the same as our worship today.
Even more obnoxious, though, must be the tendency to reject hospitality. I kept finding myself in conversations with nice people who wanted to assure me that this very thing I was so excited about in Orthodoxy is something they have in their church as well. And I would try hard, no doubt to the point of rudeness, to convince them this was not so. (Of course, for every person insisting that there were no differences, there was another person asking me to explain the differences. If only you could get them to form two lines.)
Well, was it so? It depends on where you put the emphasis. Most people like to be polite and get along, so they highlight our commonalities. But every church must have its distinctiveness, or we’d all be in the same church. At the time, I was so occupied with comprehending this strange thing called Orthodoxy that I emphasized the differences, and was impatient with kindly big-tent suggestions.