Hip deep in icons and incense…

July – August 2015

My husband likes to joke that I have gone “medieval” on him. By this he is referring to my decision to become an Orthodox Christian. What on earth, you say?

There are many stories of conversion to Orthodoxy you can find online. As a person whose profession is the world of emotions, I wanted to know more about these converts’ emotional reactions to this whole process as they went along. I also knew that some of my family and friends would want to know my reasons for making this change, not the stories of others, although they are better written and are better representations of Orthodoxy. So, for better or for worse, this is my story. Read on at your own peril. πŸ˜‰

Here’s what happened. Someone at work invited me to visit his church. At various times in my life I had been curious about the Orthodox Church, but never having known someone who was Orthodox I never seemed to get around to visiting. So I was noodling around on his church’s website and I started learning more about the Orthodox Church that piqued my interest. For example, I had no idea what was up with icons. Apparently they represent something like “windows” into the spiritual world and when they “reverence” them (they pray, bow and then kiss them) they are actually expressing their respect to the Lord or to the saint depicted in the icon. That made me think of the reverence that warriors hold towards their fellows who die in combat. The site provided me some cool bits of trivia, so I thought, ‘What the heck? I’m curious about the Orthodox church anyway, maybe I’ll visit his church.’

Since the orthodox stand up their whole service (except the old or infirm), I visited Great Vespers (Saturday evening service) as it was only an hour long service. (A Sunday morning Liturgy usually runs two hours.) The coworker wasn’t there, so I just observed the service to see what these people were up to.

So it was after over 40 years as a Protestant, Evangelical, Born-Again and Charismatic Christian (I call myself a “Jesus Freak” or “Christ Follower” for short depending on who I am talking to) that I finally visited an Orthodox church.

Let me say more about that. My first service made me more interested but I was emotionally not very engaged. Some of that was due to just getting my bearings and seeing things I didn’t understand completely and would google later (such as people touching the ground). It also had to do with my feet hurting a great deal – I had been on them all afternoon. I suppose my pride kept me from taking a seat. That was some fitting corrective training for the sin of pride. πŸ˜‰

That made me more interested but at that point I had no intention of converting!

So I was curious enough to try it again so I visited the Sunday morning service or Liturgy. My coworker greeted me with a kiss on the cheek. It was a very good thing I was aware there is a verse in the Bible that says “Greet one another with a holy kiss” or I would have been quite taken aback. As it was I was enough surprised that it did not occur to me to return the favor. After all, a kiss on the cheek is not what I usually expect as a greeting from someone who is on active duty in the military! “Good morning, Ma’am” is how I am usually greeted!

The church service was very, very different from what I was used to and also different from what I knew about the Catholic Church as well (I’ve been to a handful of Catholic services over the years). This time I wasn’t in as much pain and at least had some idea of what was going on so I got more out of that service. Standing next to someone I knew just a little bit from work helped me feel a bit more comfortable. I could sense his reverence towards God and his ability to focus his attention on the Lord. And this time I was better able to listen to the words of the service and enjoy the music of the choir. Among other things, they do a lot of things in threes, like they will sing “Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy! Lord have mercy!” It’s a beautiful service with the priest, deacon or reader singing or chanting the Bible or a prayer and the congregation singing a brief reply, so I didn’t get bored. The choir also sings hymns a capella, often in four part harmony.

This second service I attended, I was more able to “enter in” as charismatics say – which led to some voracious reading over the next two weeks. My intellectual curiosity swept over me – I had to learn more. But also I began noticing a greater tenderness in my heart towards the Lord the next two weeks the more I read. Also my Christian music touched me more deeply than usual. (I have various playlists in my iPhone that I use during my commute – one for worship, one for dealing with trials and tribulations, etc.).

After my second visit to the Orthodox church, I began reading more about that ancient branch of Christianity. So husband’s humor aside, it’s older than medieval – it is truly ancient going back continuously to the first century. So really it’s more the trunk from which the Catholics branched off and from them branched off the many Protestant denominations.

So I read four short books by Clark Carlton, a former Baptist now Orthodox and pondered things but was not ready to take the plunge.

Many things I read I definitely liked. At times I thought, ‘Oh my goodness! Where have these people been my whole life???’ Their theology is elegantly simple and very profound all at the same time. And please note that my ramblings here are how I understood what I was reading and should NOT be taking as a particularly accurate representation of Orthodoxy. Some better places to learn more are www.oca.org, www.orthodoxinfo.com (please note that the latter site is a bit “hard core” in places…).

It’s taken me a bit to wrap my head around all of this because I’m so used to thinking about theology from a Protestant perspective. Oh sure, Orthodox, Catholics and Protestants all believe in the Nicene Creed (aside from a handful of isolated Protestant denominations) but Orthodox Christians see and define some things differently. One difference that is very, very cool to me is that they see sin as a sickness that keeps people from being able to take in God’s love and that Christ’s death on the Cross and resurrection was to provide healing for that sickness. When an Orthodox Christian goes to confession and the priest gives her or him direction or assigns a penance it is designed as medicine to cure the sin (kind of reminds me of lifting weights to build stronger muscles) – not a punishment. So I’m reading this theology and thinking, “Yes! Yes! Yes! This is what my gut knew all along!” In contrast most Protestants see the Atonement as payment in a legal sense for our sins. The Orthodox point out that the word for salvation (σωτηρία, soteria) is also translated “healing”, but the emphasis among Charismatics  and Pentecostals has been that physical healing was also obtained on the Cross. So the Orthodox take the Cross in a medicinal, not legal, sense. Wow, that’s quite a shift for me since I got “saved” when I was 16 and had always heard the legal definition espoused. (Catholics also hold to the legal sense.) Christianity is seen by the Orthodox as a hospital, not a courthouse.

I wrestled with what I was reading and started jotting down my thoughts. For example, Carlton critiqued the Protestant stance of Sola Scriptura that it leads to this kind of thinking:  “…anyone can pick up a Bible and, because it is self-interpreting, glean from it everything he needs to believe and do in order to be a Christian.”  (The Way by Clark Carlton) I found myself in agreement with the author that this is nonsense because we all have blind spots, mental filters and resistance at times to recognize when we are wrong about something.

I found myself able to accept many Orthodox doctrines as plausible, such as communion being more than a memorial. When Christ said, “This is my body… this is my blood…” with regard to the elements of Communion at the Last Supper, He could have been speaking metaphorically or literally. I found myself thinking if the early church fathers took this literally then this most likely was the right interpretation. We as 21st century Americans often have the hubris to think that we are more intelligent than the ancients, forgetting that they invented such things as geometry, did amazing architectural feats, etc. (If you want to know more, one explanation of the Orthodox definition of communion can be found here: http://oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-sacraments/holy-eucharist .)

I was wrestling with what I was reading and this was somewhat uncomfortable. It was hard to accept the possibility that some of my theology that I had believed for decades was incorrect. You see, I have not been particularly dissatisfied with the churches I have attended over the years. There have been no really negative experiences for me and the preaching has not been overly dogmatic.

I shared these musings and many others with my coworker, and he wrote a reply a day or so later…. but he inadvertently did not send it. I wondered at his silence but carried on with my reading and musings.

I continued reading and I continued wrestling emotionally with the thought of becoming Orthodox not because what I was reading was not intellectually convincing (quite the opposite), but because this would mean a radical change for me. And I’d gently mentioned some of what I’m reading to my husband and he was not particularly interested.

The Orthodox can be very deep thinkers. ‘But Dostoyevsky, the great, Russian Orthodox novelist of the nineteenth century, came much closer to the truth when he observed that hell is “the suffering of being no longer able to love.” ‘ (as cited in Carlton). A person who has never experienced this has no idea how miserable this is. When a soldier with combat PTSD becomes numb and finds himself no longer able to feel love even for his young children it troubles him deeply and often thoughts of suicide follow. (Thankfully I have seen people heal from this.)

The more I read, the more I began giving very serious thought to converting to Orthodoxy. I also started reading the stories of converts from Protestantism to Orthodoxy. Some of their stories can be found here:  http://journeytoorthodoxy.com/ and others are in this short book:  Coming Home: Why Protestant Clergy are Becoming Orthodox edited by Peter E. Gillquist. But my story is a bit different than theirs – which is why I decided to post this blog entry. I wasn’t looking to change churches and I wasn’t dissatisfied with my experiences in the Protestant churches I had attended over the years. But the idea of converting to Orthodoxy was intimidating to me – I might go so far as to say a bit frightening. I knew my husband would not be excited by this. I knew many of my family and friends would be surprised and some might even be dismayed by this choice.

It is of interest to me that the coworker’s reply to my intellectual musings (a lot more than I have included here) and wrestlings with Orthodoxy was inadvertently delayed by a week. I believe it was meant to be so out of God’s mercy towards me as I struggled with this journey. I needed to read more first, but more than that I needed to attend another service. Yet I was surprised to find that I found myself looking forward to attending another Liturgy – even though standing that long makes my feet hurt… a lot. (Yes, I’ve seen a doctor and yes I wear inserts. πŸ˜‰ )

For decades church has been something I did as a matter of course because it is good for me, much as we brush our teeth. Brushing teeth is something we do because we know we should, most of us don’t dislike it but neither do we look forward to it (unless for some reason it’s been a long time). Once I would arrive at church I would almost always enjoy the service, but I rarely found myself looking forward to going.

My plan was to attend probably at least four more services before asking to meet with one of the priests. But then I attended my third service. That next Sunday morning was something else again. I had to pull back to the very back of the congregation because I started weeping – it just came over me and I didn’t want to distract others. I restrained an urge to raise my hands as I would in a charismatic service – again I didn’t because I didn’t want to draw attention to myself. All attention in worship should be on the Lord. It was an emotional experience different for me than I’ve had before. It wasn’t remorse or grief or repentance (although I would have willingly embraced those feelings had they hit me). It was something like joy and reverence and gratitude and relief and feelings of being completely unworthy of His love yet feeling His love and acceptance all at once. It was like both my Protestant theology (not all of which was off the mark, of course) and my recent readings about Orthodoxy were becoming REAL. But I’m not sure that exactly captures it. Also, the sermon and the readings seem to just exactly fit me that morning. Many Christians take it as a clue that they have found their home church when this happens. And so did I, but it was far from the main contributor to my decision.

It was after this service that we discovered that I never received the coworker’s email response to my musings about what I was reading about Orthodoxy and he re-sent it. Among other things he wrote, he suggested I meet with a priest to discuss converting to Orthodoxy. Had I read his email before that morning’s service I would not have been ready to receive his suggestion that I meet with a priest and might have felt a bit pressured, become resistant and pushed back. After that service I was quite sure that that was exactly what I needed to do.

Once I decided to convert, next I decided I should start looking for a patron saint. A patron saint is someone that is picked when people become Orthodox and they take on the name of the saint as their Christian name. I figured I would be very particular about who this saint would be as I would have to live with that name whenever I attended services. So I figured it would take me weeks if not months to find her. I started reading the saints celebrated that day and read forward a few days, reading up on female saints. Then on a whim I read the saints celebrated on my birthday and there she was! This is a woman who converted from Protestantism to Orthodoxy. Later in life she devoted herself to the faith and to charitable works but what grabbed my attention was that when her country was at war, she worked at the front lines and in hospitals tending to wounded soldiers. And I work with psychologically wounded soldiers. What a great fit – a human heroine I can comfortably admire and hope to emulate (except the martyrdom part!)! And not only is she celebrated on my birthday, my middle name is the same as her first name. Finding her one day after making the decision to convert was quite a striking “coincidence.”

The next weekend I met with the senior priest of the two churches I’d been attending. Oddly, he looks a great deal how my Greek professor looked when I went to Bible College years ago. He is a quiet, calm man with an easy manner. He advised me to attend services through the rest of the summer and then let him know if I still wanted to convert. In his own terms he was telling me to get what I would call experiential knowledge in addition to what I was reading. He also suggested an excellent book Welcome to the Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Eastern Christianity by Frederica Mathewes-Green. That book was very helpful to gaining a better understanding of Orthodoxy, how and why the church is laid out the way it is physically and the liturgy itself. And I continued attending services.

So since Orthodox people kiss icons as part of the worship I learned the steps and started doing so too. It’s kind of odd doing something so personal with other people around. The kissing itself kind of reminds me of something like a soldier kissing a photo of a girlfriend while deployed. It makes me feel good to see men reverence the icons, but I’m not sure if I can explain why that is. Am I a spiritual voyeur? Or is it because as an American I am so used to men hiding their “softer” emotions it’s nice to see them show them towards God? When I’m reverencing one of the icons of Christ it brings up in me feelings of love+awe+respect+humility+gratitude. I feel that towards Him with regard to the scene that is depicted. So to me it feels like He is in the scene when I’m kissing Him… That I’m kissing Him — not the image. You can read more about that here: http://www.orthodoxchristian.info/pages/Holy_Icons.htm

I find myself wanting to learn all the stories behind all the paintings on the walls. Sometimes I feel like the guy who wanted all the knowledge of the world all at once while standing on one foot.

Reading about what is entailed with being Orthodox is at times intimidating – such as fasting almost every Wednesday (remembering Christ’s betrayal by Judas) and Friday (remembering the Crucifixion); it’s a partial fast abstaining from all meats and all fish except shellfish, all dairy products, all alcohol and olive oil. I wondered how on earth was I going to keep on my high protein diet with all those restrictions? There are other fasts, too, such as for Lent, that I haven’t taken the time to learn about yet.

I also found the thought of making a full life’s confession mildly intimidating. To be honest besides a bit embarrassing and humbling, it also sounds time consuming and a bit tedious to recall back over all those decades! What intimidates me most are the sins I still wrestle with on a regular basis. Just knowing that that confession awaits me prior to my Orthodox baptism (most likely next May) has motivated me to clean up my thought life and I’ve had some small success with that as a result. So yes, fasting and making confession to a priest are mildly intimidating. But when I found myself making some progress in my thought life, it became less intimidating. And I’ve come up with my own high-protein, oil free bread recipes, discovered something quite good at Trader Joe’s (Builders 20g Protein Bars, yum!) and found some delicious vegan entrees (such as Moroccan lentil soup). My protein consumption is lower now on Wednesdays and Fridays, but not enough for me to lose the nice thermogenic effect I get from my current diet that keeps me from freezing in my office (but that is another tale too).

Parallel to this were other changes I found myself making. I downloaded an Orthodox prayer app and started saying morning prayers, aloud, standing up like we do in service. There is a point in these prayers where a person includes their own personal devotions and prayer requests. I found myself praying for family and friends much more often than ever before. And remembering specific prayer requests at that time and including them. Having ancient prayers to say aloud improved the quality of my prayer life because those prayers are more well-rounded than mine have been in the past when I just speak from the heart. And I haven’t had to give up the latter either and find myself doing that more. Then I started saying evening prayers on occasion. After that I started trying to remember before and after work prayers and before meals – it’s still a work in progress to remember to do those.

Speaking of prayer, I discovered that the Jesus Prayer (you can read about that here: http://www.goarch.org/ourfaith/ourfaith7104) is very helpful for pushing out impure thoughts. I’ve taught my patients many times that if they don’t want to think negative thoughts they need to think positive thoughts, not just try to stop the negative ones. The best way to avoid thinking about pink elephants is to start thinking about purple zebras. Silly analogy, but it works. That’s certainly not the main reason for saying the Jesus Prayer, but definitely a helpful side-effect.

I downloaded an Orthodox Study Bible app and started reading that Bible and its study notes alongside the Archeological Study Bible I’d been working through a chapter a day for the past several years (it has a lot of notes and articles).

Meanwhile I continued to attend services, Vespers, Great Vespers, Liturgy, a couple of special Saturday morning liturgies (the latter to accommodate still attending Protestant services on Sunday mornings with my husband). My husband and I were only attending about twice a month anyway, so we came upon a compromise that I would attend Sunday morning Orthodox Liturgy twice a month and Protestant services twice a month.

In any case, with other service times I’ve been attending about once a week and I’m falling in love with Orthodox worship. It does such a great job of incorporating the whole person – body, emotions, mind, spirit. It is so reverent, so peaceful. It is a very emotionally intimate approach to worship when the body becomes as involved as it is – making the sign of the cross, bowing, kissing icons, singing “Lord have mercy”, “Grant this O Lord”, etc., antiphonally with the Priest’s chanted prayers and invocations. It is hard to explain the beauty of Orthodox worship – a person has to just go and experience it for him or her self. But do so in a church where it is done in English or you will miss out on a lot. You can listen to some of the music here in various languages: http://www.ancientfaith.com/radio/listen.

So I’ll be starting catechism class in about a week.

My husband says soon we’re going to be “hip deep in icons and incense.” I’m very grateful that God has blessed him with a good sense of humor.

So as a result of a coworker’s invitation I’ve decided to become Orthodox. Yep, I’m definitely going to go “old school.” Weird the way God works in our lives sometimes.

For those who want to read more about this, here you go. Links:


A list of some noteworthy converts to Orthodoxy:


Here’s someone who looked into a LOT of religions first:


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