From Arguing to Rejoicing
By Frederica Mathewes-Green
Originally published by Beliefnet, Jul 27, 2007. Reproduced here courtesy of the author.
On July 26, 2007, Rod Dreher posted on his blog on Beliefnet.com, “Crunchy Cons,” the piece in the current Again Magazine about our journey from Anglican to Orthodox. He asked people to write in telling what triggered them to leave a church or a belief, or what caused them to decide to stay despite difficulties.
Thanks, Rod, for posting this and launching a strong conversation.
Daniel, thanks for this: <<Why, after 16 years, does Matthews-Green still talk about her difference with the Episcopal church and use it as a way to convert people to her little corner of Orthodoxy? >>
As Rod points out, I keep talking about it because people keep asking about it. They also ask me to explain the difference between Orthodoxy and Western Christianity, so I spend a lot of time explaining that, too — and in the process, offending and angering people. I am sad to think that I have probably damaged some friendships that way. No matter how kindly you put it, you’re inevitably saying, “here are the differences, and here is why I think Orthodoxy is better” — that’s inevitable.
I was thinking of writing an essay titled “Why Converts to Orthodoxy are Obnoxious.” I think it’s pretty much parallel to the reason adolescents are obnoxious. They are trying to comprehend their unique identity, and trying to establish it in the face of—not hostility, which would be hard but at least bracing and clarifying, but affection, which is a lot more sticky. Grandmom and Pops and Uncle Joe et al. love the little guy, who’s “going through a phase.”
But the “little guy” knows that it’s more profound than that, that he is turning into a different person, the adult he will be, and affectionate attempts to obscure this feel suffocating. So he’s either sullen or outspokenly angry. Of course, there are ways that he is still the same person he will always be, and there are ways Orthodoxy and (e.g.) Lutheranism share beliefs and practices— definitely so, not least that each loves the same Lord. But the impulse is to exaggerate the differences when you fear being hugged to death.
But lately I’ve been feeling restless because this explaining and clarifying is so not what I want to be doing. I don’t want to be putting more argument into the world. I look at the essays on my website, and there are about 400 of them, and most are arguing about something. But what I want to be doing is presenting the beauty of Jesus Christ. I want to show people how it’s possible to know him in this life, to know his immediate presence, to be suffused with his love.
It will sound strange, but I think some of the people who most need to hear this good news are evangelical Christians. Someone wrote me yesterday: <<They are promised changed lives in the Spirit and exhorted to submit everything to Christ but have absolutely no idea how this comes to be. They are ever searching for that one next book or great preacher that will have the answers, but never find the solution. Many live in a perpetual state of despair; some even theologize it away so despair becomes the normative setting for Christian life. >>
There is a lot of restlessness and dissatisfaction in evangelicalism right now, and what people are craving is to know Jesus. He really is life. He really is love. There is so much joy here. But I can’t find a way to talk about this without sounding silly.
What I found in Orthodoxy is the ancient biblical “way” to be filled with the presence of Christ. I’m talking about “Orthodoxy” the way someone could say “Buddhism” or “Calvinism” — talking about the understanding it has, the spiritual path, rather than any particular example of the earthly Orthodox Church. Before I became Orthodox I didn’t know this “way” existed. This is the “best kept secret” people are always talking about.
It actually took me several years grasp it, but the early church uncovered a “way” to be saturated with God, like a cloth is saturated with dye. As this way was carried around the world by missionaries, it became clearer which parts were expressions of local culture, and which parts were universally applicable, effective for any human being anywhere, any time. This “way” is designed to heal a basic brokenness in the human person. It’s tailored to the human organism, it “works” for everybody like nutritious food and water do.
It “works” for those who “work” it, of course. There are lots of people with health club memberships who never set foot in the place. Likewise, there are plenty of Orthodox churchgoers who are not pursuing this path. Maybe they were never taught about it, sadly enough. But if you want to find it, the places to try are Orthodox churches and monasteries, because that’s where it’s always been practiced and passed along. Before Orthodoxy I’d done lots of exploration in Western spirituality, and I can recognize some common elements. But in Orthodoxy the spiritual path is organic, electric, synergistic; and it has never passed out of practice. This is not archeology, but stepping into a living community 2000 years old.
So this is what I wish I could spend all my time talking about. Not even talking about the Orthodox “way” as much as talking about Jesus! It’s only a “way” to see the beauty of his face. To be taken up into his life and be filled with his love, able to love even your enemies. But the posts on this thread sure show how easy it is to misunderstand Jesus, and how damaged people can be by a weak or erroneous presentation of him. Lots of healing is necessary.
That’s what I want to write about. I want to help people discover this way. It’s what I was looking for all my life. But it’s so hard to write about, because it sounds sentimental or flaky. I keep struggling with this. In the meantime I keep getting asked the “compare and contrast” questions, and keep trying to explain.
Not long ago a journalist phoned me from the New Republic, and he wanted to know about the politics behind why people leave Anglican churches for Orthodoxy. At the end of the long conversation it struck me what we hadn’t talked about. I said “But all this is not the point. What draws people into Orthodoxy, and what keeps them there, is the person of Jesus Christ. He is there, and the more you draw near him, the more compelling and beautiful it is. Orthodoxy practices an ancient ‘way’ to draw nearer to him, and he is the magnet at the center. Without this vibrant love flowing from and toward Jesus Christ, Orthodoxy would be pointless.”
Even saying the words I could hear how ineffective they were. And naturally the reporter didn’t ask any follow-up questions or indicate any interest. The thing people can write about is political infighting; they can’t write about this. It’s embarrassing. Smarmy. Idiotic.
Anyway, I ask prayers that I will discover how to write about the thing I love most, instead of arguing. I’ve got a trunkful of old spiritual journals going back decades. I keep thinking I’d like to just transcribe them, and present how God has dealt with me all my life, how beautiful he is, what his healing is like, how much joy. But whatever I think of writing sounds like a Hallmark card.