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[Published in The Greek-Australian Vema, June 2008, 6]

Coming into Orthodoxy:


Aspects Related to Conversion,
Initiation and Integration
By Revd Dr Doru Costache

Besides the very visible phenomenon of conversions motivated by marriage,


it is a matter of fact that more and more people in Western societies, from all
walks of life and mostly intellectuals, become interested in Orthodoxy. Here I
will address aspects related to the necessary steps to be taken by those who
wish to join Orthodoxy.

In light of the Pentecost paradigm (cf. Acts of the Apostles 2:1-4 & 7-11),
Orthodoxy has never supported cultural colonialism, as it is capable of
expressing the Christian spirit in all languages. This is perhaps one of the
reasons why, incarnating the original message of the Gospel and exploring it
within the possibilities of various historical, cultural and geographical
contexts, the Orthodox tradition exerts ineffable attraction upon those
looking for more spiritual ways. But the secret of its ‘success’ lies
undoubtedly with the fact that Orthodoxy ultimately is, if anything, the
‘newness of life’ (Romans 6:4) in Christ’s Holy Spirit, the supreme celebration
of life and restoration of its fullness in light of the traditional apostolic criteria.
Consequently, its message cannot be exhausted through any ideological
statements, religious narratives or moralising commandments, since within
the framework of Orthodoxy both faith and life are inextricably connected.
Paraphrasing the words of St John Chrysostom (see Homilies on Genesis
2.14), Orthodoxy illustrates excellently the application of the integrative
principle according to which the way of life should reflect one’s teachings and
one’s teachings should preach a certain way of living.

This characteristic is reflected in the preliminary instruction (catechism)


received by the converts (catechumens). It is a matter of fact that, during
their catechetical instruction, the converts to Orthodoxy are not acquainted
with a simplistic ideological formula, being instead progressively introduced
to the Orthodox way of living, which combines the doctrinal and ethical
aspects into an intricate spiritual synthesis. Given this complexity, coming to
Orthodoxy unfolds as a process of gradual assimilation. Inaugurated by an act
of personal decision – which is in fact, and mystically, an answer to the
eternal call of God –, walking the distance takes the effort of conversion, of
μετάνοια (literally, ‘change of mind’) or reshaping of one’s conscience in the
form of the φρόνημα or mindset of Christ (see Philippians 2:5). From another
point of view, this process engages a long-term gradual and delicate change
of one’s mind and life in accordance with the ecclesial, divinely inspired,
criteria. Speaking of a gradual process, it is obvious that the Orthodox Church
does not believe in definitive conversions over night, being aware of the inner
labyrinths of one’s mind, idiosyncrasies and habits that cannot be
transformed through a single decision of change.

The perfect paradigm of this gradual assimilation, which is eucharistic-like in


essence (since, like in the liturgical experience of holy communion, the
converts ‘eat’ the teaching before being ‘eaten’ by it, i.e. incorporated in
God’s people), is the monastic pattern of spiritual guidance. According to this
pattern, monastic novices are carefully guided by their elders to the wisdom
and rhythms of the ‘angelic life’ (traditional term for monasticism), until they
reach spiritual maturity and discernment. In a similar manner, along the
journey of integration into Orthodoxy, and more so after it, an essential
dimension is constituted by the relation of the convert with the spiritual
father. There is no room for a superficial sense of hierarchy here or blind
obedience; the spiritual father is necessary not from an institutional
viewpoint but because he truly is an embodiment of tradition, someone able
to introduce wisely the convert to the rhythms of the Church’s life. The
spiritual father is not merely the catechist who provides the converts with the
elementary notions; he is the one who administers step by step, in a personal
approach, the existential reasons and spiritual purposes behind the elements
of faith, ritual and ethics. This meaning is encapsulated in the comment
made by His Eminence Archbishop Stylianos, that ‘Christian faith is basically
the result of communion between two persons’.

With regard to the practical aspects of this process of incorporating converts


into God’s people, various Orthodox Churches follow different paths. The
major differences occur with the reception of the adults whose upbringing has
taken place within other Christian denominations. Thus, some Churches
baptise again all heterodox coming into Orthodoxy irrespective of the form in
which they have previously received baptism. However, the majority of
Orthodox Churches (including the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia)
receive the converts by chrismation (or anointing, the equivalent of the
heterodox ceremony of confirmation) and holy communion, if they have been
baptised in the name of the Holy Trinity within a recognised Christian
denomination, and provided they pass the necessary stage of catechetical
instruction. Also, a few Orthodox Churches ask the converts to abjure the
heretical teachings and practices they professed before their conversion to
Orthodoxy, as a prerequisite of either the catechetical instruction or the
reception of the holy mysteries (sacraments) of baptism and/or chrismation.
The majority of the Orthodox Churches consider, however, that this practice
is not necessary, given the converts’ expression of intention to join
Orthodoxy. The policy is more uniform with regard to receiving to Orthodoxy
converts coming from non-Christian backgrounds. For such cases, the
converts should all pass the catechetical stage of instruction and only after it
receive all the sacraments of initiation: baptism, chrismation and holy
communion. After the reception of the holy mysteries (sacraments), the
converts are acknowledged as full members of the Church, enjoying all the
blessings of partaking with the people of God.