As another year passes and a New Year is born, my family and I prepare to celebrate another year in the Church. New Year’s Eve was our first Christmation Anniversary. In the weeks leading up to Christmas I asked my wife what had changed the most in her life since we were welcomed home one year ago. She said that her struggle with sin has gone from a theoretical and intellectual concept to a flesh and blood reality. What she always knew (that she shouldn’t sin) has been manifested in the life of the Church.
She has begun to truly struggle, and in that struggle she has won victories. Sins that used to be pervasive are no longer a daily battle. Sins that she never even thought to attempt fighting against are now being fiercely opposed. Not only is her struggle now real, but she has support in this struggle, a level of support that was impossible in our previous life.
I have also been pondering this question, and my answer is similar. Regular worship in an Orthodox Community has made me aware that I am in the presence of a Holy God. I have always believed God is Holy and that He is present in worship, but I did not truly know it. I had never actually experienced it.
I had always placed a premium on reverent worship, but I don’t recall experiencing that sense of God’s holiness. Martin Luther himself experienced this during his first Mass as a Catholic priest, such an awareness never struck me during the years I served Lutheran liturgies. I knew only about God’s presence and holiness from books. What I knew about God from books, I have finally begun to experience in Spirit and in Truth.
If you had asked me before what I expected to change after becoming Orthodox, I think I would have answered along the lines of doctrine, that my thinking would change. I would not have thought to answer that my experience was the most significant change. My previous church was largely driven by doctrine and explaining everything correctly. If you had asked me, “Why become Lutheran?” my answer would have been along the lines of “Because we are the most right”.
When I think about the long journey that started for my wife and I when we accidentally became inquirers, I find it difficult to summarize how or why everything happened in that long journey. It began as an attempt to solidify Lutheranism as the most accurate confession of the Christian faith. I was about to enter seminary and wanted to learn how to defeat Orthodoxy, one of the few denominations I didn’t know enough about to know why they were wrong.
It became immediately apparent that I was in over my head. Despite our questions, we were directed to continue with our path to seminary. The more I immersed myself in Lutheranism the more my worldview was being muddied by this thorn in my side that was the Orthodox perspective. I loved so much about the Church I grew up in; I had no intention of departing from it.
But that which I did love was lacking, and whenever I looked over my shoulder, Orthodoxy was there to show me the fullness of those things I was hoping in vain would appear in Lutheranism. Many years later it became apparent that those holes in my worldview were not able to be fixed, they were foundational to my belief system.
I needed to completely rewire my view of God and faith and the Church, or I would never find the fullness I was looking for. This included less of learning more or new doctrines and more of letting go of some things I had been clinging to unnecessarily. It required less of an examination of exegesis and more of an openness to the idea that God bigger than my own intellect – and wanted more of me than that.
Explaining my journey as simply a comparison of points of doctrine isn’t a satisfying explanation for myself, or probably anyone else. I didn’t give up my entire life and everything I loved just to change a few bullet points on my theological framework. There’s more to it than that. But when I try to put words to this more mystical side of my conversion, I can’t seem to express it. I know it, not through words, but through experience.
I have been mulling over this inexpressible part of my conversion, trying to figure out a way do some justice to the fullness of what happened, when I read a post over at the Time Eternal blog by Dr. Nicole Roccas. Her post is called “Conversion as Paradigm Shift: Why Conversion is So Hard to Explain” and I recommend it for the main point of the post, which I found helpful.
Dr. Roccas said, “What changed was not receiving new information–I already knew about Eastern Christian ideas about icons, veneration being passed on to the Prototype, notions of sacrament, etc. Instead, what changed was my paradigm. A new narrative–about life, creation, matter, reality, Christ’s activity in this world–supplanted the old. This took time.”
Her main point is well taken and applies to my own experience. My paradigm was shifting as I began to embrace a deeper and more robust form of Lutheranism that treasured the church fathers and lifted up the liturgy. As Dr. Roccas noted in her post, I too have tried over time to break my journey down into a step-by-step account of the problems with Sola Scriptura, the refusal of Lutherans to commune their infants after baptism, the worship wars in the Lutheran Church and the details of doctrine.
All of those attempts are true and accurate, but they don’t really explain the paradigm shift that happened. They don’t explain how this new narrative that supported the fullness of the faith eventually took over and supplanted my previous narrative. I had found all of the holes in Lutheranism long before Orthodoxy came along, and I had no plans to leave just because of the holes. There was something more than error that compelled me to leave.
I can still line up points of doctrine, practice, Scripture and history and make an intellectual case for what I did. But at the deepest level my paradigm shift is expressed in the encounter I have with God in the Divine Liturgy. This encounter of God shifted my paradigm from God being someone you learn about in the Bible and in books to God being a person I interact with and meet in the spiritual life of the Church.
Fr Stephen Freeman describes this in his book “Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe.” Growing up my paradigm was that of a two-storey house. “We live here on earth, the first floor, where things are simply things and everything operates according to normal, natural laws, while God lives in heaven, upstairs, and is largely removed from the storey in which we live.” Now I see the universe as a one-storey house where we are here, present with God and the entire spiritual realm.
It is difficult to explain the totality of conversion because it means the entire shape and function of your universe has changed. That’s a lot to unpack. I have adopted a new language and culture, and entirely new life. How do I explain the treasure and beauty of what I have been given to those who have not experienced it? It’s like I have been given eyes to see an entirely new color palette and I’m trying to describe this new vision to someone whose only primary colors are red, green and blue.
Perhaps there is reason for this. Maybe Conversion is a Mystery, a way in which we experience God, but we cannot simply pass off to someone else to whom this Mystery has not been given. It is not our job to convert others, or even to explain our own conversion, but to live in love and in harmony with this new universe that we have been given to see and to partake in, unworthy as we may be.