‘Swimming the Volga’

Disclaimer: This blog is entitled Orthodox Diary, and while most of my posts until now have included a mixture of personal reflection, autobiography, and cultural and religious criticism aimed at a general audience, you should expect that some of my posts will read like actual diary entries. This is, after all, a blog. And so, in the tradition of the old blogspot.com pages we all had in the early 2000s, what follows is less an “article” or an “essay” and more of a straight-up, public diary entry.

Photo by Dmitri Lovetsky

Early this morning, before, during, and after my morning prayers, I could not shake the feeling that I’m doing this all wrong, that I’m doing this for the wrong reasons, that I’m just plain wrong about everything. A quote that I’ve shared before on this blog, a quote that pops into my head at least once a day, came into my mind:

O proud man, if only your guardian angel would somehow remove the veil from your eyes and show you the endless open sea of all that you do not know. You would kneel before every man before whom you have exhibited pride and kneel before every man whom you have belittled. You would cry out lamenting: “Forgive me, forgive me! I do not know anything!”

St. Nikolaj Velimirović, Prologue of Ohrid

I’m doing this wrong. I’m doing this for the wrong reasons. Why am I doing this?

The big question: Why Orthodox? Why am I becoming Orthodox?

The implicit question: Why not Catholic?

I’ve struggled with this question every month or so ever since I started attending Vespers last summer, ever since I began contemplating a conversion to Orthodoxy a few months before that, ever since I began hearing Orthodox voices everywhere in my life a year or so before that. And now I am struggling with this question again, during my morning prayers.

My journey into Orthodoxy has included a lot of Catholic voices. In order to understand the doctrines and spirit of Orthodoxy, I’ve consumed a vast number of Orthodox books, essays, and videos. But in order to understand the spirit of a liturgical tradition, which is totally new to me, I’ve included many Catholic (and some Lutheran) books, essays, and videos in my diet. Consequently, I’ve encountered many quite convincing apologists for the Catholic-Lutheran tradition. (Does it seem strange to join the two into one tradition? To a Catholic or a Lutheran, I’m sure it does. But to a former Pentecostal and one-time Quaker converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, Lutheranism can seem almost as beautiful and ornate as its Latin brother. It’s like a stripped-down Catholicism. Together they comprise what is, to me, most attractive about Western Christianity.)

Today, the size and scope and pure catholicism of the Catholic Church seems so inviting. It is the Church of my fathers. Why not return to its embrace? Part of me wants to. Part of me has always wanted to. My spiritual hero from my teenage years, Rich Mullins, all but converted when his life was cut short. I’m still here: why don’t I go all the way?

But isn’t Orthodoxy going all the way? All the way back to Greece, to Anatolia, to Syria and Palestine: back to before there was a Roman church? All the way back to the uninterrupted Apostolic tradition?

(Is that what my faith should be about? Going all the way back? What does that even mean? Do I care about Holy Tradition or is that simply a disguise for my desire for historicity?)

Today, it feels like my only serious objection to Catholicism is its current North American form. The campfire-inspired contemporary worship; the modern church buildings that are indistinguishable from those of its younger Protestant cousins; the easygoing, light, therapeutic homilies; the unleavened wafers; the priests who, unbearded, look like my local dentist—should I really reject the onetruechurch on stylistic grounds? Or because it’s not a perfect “fit” for me? (Are most Catholic churches really like that, anyway?)

Orthodoxy isn’t a perfect fit, either. No church is a perfect fit. So why do I choose a tradition that is so far from my own traditions? I know why I rejected those, why I’m not a Pentecostal, why I’m not an Evangelical, why I’m not Reformed. But why do I reject Catholicism? (How can you even reject something as big and diverse as Catholicism—that’s part of its attractiveness to me, its sheer size.)

In the past, I’ve objected to the scholastic tradition in Catholicism, its intellectualism, the way it deflates all the mysteries of Christianity. But I don’t really reject scholasticism. It’s just not my bag. And the Catholic Church is so much more than scholasticism. A perfectly respectable mystical tradition exists in Catholicism. Centuries went by without scholastics, and centuries have passed since they’ve gone.

I don’t like transubstantiation—it feels like a scholastic formula, like the way a mechanical engineer would describe where babies come from to a six-year-old. Speaking of which, I don’t like the immaculate conception, either. I don’t like any of those Western attempts to rationalize mysteries. But aren’t all those rationalizations just flawed, human attempts to understand what can’t be properly understood? What else was the church supposed to do back then, when modern science was developing? I believe the church expresses itself as best it can in the age its given—why not view these doctrines in that light?

Besides, a church is more than its history.

What about the big issues? Do I really reject papal infallibility? Right now, I don’t think I could ever fully accept it—but could I live with it, accept the authority without accepting the doctrine?

What’s the real question here? The real question is the difficult one, the one you avoid.

Why do I go to church?

What is the real reason I’m attracted to Orthodoxy?

Do I merely enjoy being part of a church that is outside my own culture? Do I secretly want to be part of a minority? (Was Quakerism simply too much of a minority for me? Was it not weird enough for me?) Why am I making such an offbeat conversion? Am I abandoning the faith of my childhood, like a dissenting Puritan who leaves the colony, because I’m arrogant? Am I appropriating somebody else’s tradition and culture for my own personal satisfaction? When so many millions of others are swimming the Tiber, why do I insist on (to quote a friend) “swimming the Volga”?

What is my problem?

Shouldn’t I simply be asking, Where does God want me? (Pro-tip: when you use the verb should, you’re usually avoiding the bigger issue.)

The real question is the question you avoid. And the question I’m avoiding is, what do I want? Because once I’ve figured out what I desire, I can begin reconciling myself to the reality that I probably won’t get it.

My main desire this morning is this: I want a seamless faith. I want to be part of the correct church. I want to be where I belong. I want to be well-matched. I want to be correct. I want to be integrated. I want to be a perfect human, intellectually and spiritually. All of these desires are, of course, impossible. Further: they are bad desires, rooted in spiritual pride, spiritual sloth, and spiritual gluttony.

My human mind feels incapable of making such a profound transition as this conversion. It entails so much.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.

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