Some few of my coreligionists seem to believe they really are 19th century Russian peasants or 6th century Byzantine philosophes. They give their children unpronounceable names, dress in something approximating homespun, fumble with their comboschini while you’re talking to them, memorize Greek and Slavonic prayers they don’t understand, and worry about the spiritual lineages of obscure Balkan startsi. I exaggerate, of course (and certainly not everyone engaging in the above is necessarily a boutique religionist), but you get the idea. ~D. Ian Dalrymple
This is an interesting discussion, and at the conference last weekend there were some Orthodox converts talking about related problems that converts have. There is always a tendency among and temptation for converts to attempt to make themselves more Orthodox and more ‘correct’ than St. Symeon Stylites, which would be a much less lamentable attitude if they demonstrated any hint of knowing how to do this successfully. As one of my colleagues at the conference said, “Orthodox people should be normal people.” By this I think he meant that they should not be engaged in massive affectations of eccentric hyper-piety.
Now, on the other side, respecting and embracing the cultural and practical habits of the church that you enter into seem to me to not only be appropriate but a vital part of cutting your own will and becoming part of the community that has accepted you. Most converts in my church do not groan under the use of Slavonic, but there are some who rebel against the use of traditional liturgical languages, couching their own discomfort in dubious appeals to mission. Those who find Slavonic the most unsatisfying will be the first to cite the example of Sts. Cyril and Methodios as pioneers in encouraging linguistic diversity in the Church, all the while missing out on the substantial irony of this move. I think those who want to push to Americanise their parishes and hope to create an American Orthodoxy mainly by making Orthodox people become more like Protestants are gravely mistaken and they are stripping their churches of those characteristics that make for the full experience of living Orthodoxy. The Church is accommodating, but She is not a mystical catering service that will bring and fetch whatever strikes your fancy. Those who go perhaps a little overboard in embracing the traditions of the Church, while perhaps missing something more important in the process, are at least approaching the Church with the right attitude, which is exactly the opposite of the religious boutique shopper who comes to pick up the latest fashionable item and who says things like, “Oh, the Jesus Prayer is very ‘in’ right now!” Of course, no one actually says that, and few people consciously approach things this way, but any who find Orthodoxy ‘trendy’ or vaguely ‘New Age’ would be the ones I worry about a lot more (to the extent that I’m worrying about these things, which isn’t much) than the people who get as excited about blinis and the Slavophiles as they do about church services.
The people who give their children “unpronounceable names” (though most Orthodox names are not really all that unpronounceable) are, I think, to be preferred to those who only grudgingly give their children proper baptismal names and then never use those names again. If people are memorising prayers they don’t understand, that’s just bizarre. How can they actually remember them if they don’t know what they’re saying? What I mean to say is that those who take the time to memorise Otche nash in the Slavonic or Pater hemon in Greek should be able to learn without much added effort which foreign words go with which English words–the same would go for any other prayer. Adherence to forms, while far from the fullness of experiencing Orthodox life, is a better beginning than a disregard for the forms. It’s the same way with fasting or even something as great as forgiveness–you will never acquire the spiritual maturity of dispassion if you do not first begin with some minimal discipline, and you will never be able to truly forgive anyone unless you at least begin by uttering the words. These are lessons in obedience and humility. They are not ends in themselves, but exist to turn man away from himself and back towards God and towards his brethren. Those approaching many of the things in the Orthodox Church as exotic accoutrements or as the definition of akribeia will probably end up not appreciating their proper role and their importance for cultivating in us a spirit of metanoia together with the desire to experience fully the abundant life that is in Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.