Tuesday, September 12, 2006

justifying a partial conversion

I think I understand as well as anyone the reason that conversion is approached the way it is in Orthodoxy. I understand that it is preferred to convert spouses together, because Christianity (or any faith) is best practiced with unity in the home, because the children in a family are spared the difficult choice between mom and dad's religion. I understand that a convert is expected to be active in and committed to a local parish before and after conversion, because joining the Church is joining a community, and doing things otherwise creates a disconnect between the ritual and the reality.

On the other hand, it's frustrating to think that conversion must be so contingent on factors over which I have no control. I suppose in theory I could force my wife to attend an Orthodox church. But I could not force her to convert; she would have to choose for herself to embrace Orthodoxy, and short of lying her way through the ceremonies, there's no way to make that happen. In theory, I could also simply choose a path for myself (and our children), with or without her, and hope that eventually someone would give in on the part about converting with one's spouse. But if doing that clearly damaged our marriage and, more than anything else I could possibly do, drove my wife even further away from Orthodoxy, I don't think I would want anyone to convert me under such circumstances. So it seems like the only way out of the double bind is for my wife to change--either to embrace Orthodoxy (which would solve everything) or at least to make peace with my participation in it (which would at least open up the remote possibility that I might convert on my own). Of course, the other side of this issue is that I could change--drop the whole business and go back to being a contented Evangelical. But at that point we're not talking about Orthodox conversion anymore.

The other question, then, is can I justify another way? In short, can I bend the rules enough (I'm talking letter, here, rather than spirit) to get in without a significant change on my wife's part? One option I've explored (which so far has turned out to be a dead-end) is the negative argument--don't look at the ideal of what conversion should be; look at the reality of actual Orthodox individuals. How many have been baptized in the Orthodox Church but have not set foot in a service in years? Or perhaps they only show up for Christmas and Easter. Or maybe they go sporadically because a spouse drags them along, but their heart isn't in it. Who wouldn't prefer a convert who loves the Church, loves its teachings, loves its worship, who can't attend regularly because of a mixed marriage situation but shows up whenever possible? And indeed, how much tangible difference is there between that and someone who was born Orthodox, chose to marry a non-Orthodox, and ends up doing the same thing? The only difference is that at some point in that person's life, they chose a relationship that made it harder to be faithful in their Orthodoxy. The convert who came over already yoked made no such choice.

Well, that argument didn't convince anyone. Sure, you can always find humans to compare yourself with, but the standard still needs to be upheld. A priest can't always prevent a person from wandering away from the standard, but at least he can enforce it on the front end. I understand. Believe me, I do. It still doesn't make the situation any less frustrating. So here's my second attempt--the positive argument.

There are probably other good examples, but I'm going to focus here on St. Mary of Egypt. From what we know of her, it seems that she took communion only twice in her adult life--once right before she entered the desert, and once right before she died. Not only did she not interact with other Christians during her many years of isolation, she apparently never set foot in a corporate worship service of any kind. Now, it doesn't seem like we know much about her childhood. If she was given communion immediately after her experience in Jerusalem, presumably her parents had her baptized before her life of sin. But whatever happened in those early years, there was a decisive return to the Church when she reached Palestine. So even though it wasn't properly a conversion in the sense that she needed to be baptized, it was still a restoration of communion. Immediately after that, however, she entered the desert and lived the rest of her life in isolation. Was it planned? Did she know that things would work out that way? Did the priest who gave her communion? Perhaps not. But she was following God's leading, and God knew.

The argument can be generalized beyond the specific instance of St. Mary. How many other countless hermits throughout the history of the Church have spent most of their time in the desert, in a sense cut off from the community of believers, attached to the Church in a spiritual sense but far removed physically? I chose St. Mary as my example, because in her case at least it clearly can't be argued that she spent time first getting fully integrated and maturing within a community. You can't say about her that her isolation came only after she was well-grounded in the life of the Church. Also, because she took communion before she entered the desert, it can't be argued that all her struggles alone in the wilderness were her preparation and repentance, her necessary prerequisites before restoration to the Church. She was restored first--converted first, if you will--then she spent years in repentance to repair the damage of her sinful life. And while she lived without earthly human contact, without access to Scripture or other spiritual writings, she communed with the saints, her prayers were heard, the words of Scripture were planted in her heart, and she matured to become a saint herself.

If this is possible, is it not also possible for a much lesser isolation to fit within God's plan? For someone in my situation, who cannot find a path to both love his wife and enter the Church as a fully participating member, to still spend daily time in prayer and Scripture, reading from the wealth of spiritual writings in the Church's tradition, living according to the teachings of Orthodoxy, fasting, confessing, communing when possible, and attending services and interacting with other Orthodox believers at every opportunity. Living in a marriage with two very different religious perspectives is difficult enough--loving one's wife as Christ loved the Church in such circumstances is an ascetic practice in itself--doesn't someone in this situation, of all people, need the grace of the sacraments? Doesn't such a person need the strength that comes from even a partial relationship with the community of Orthodox believers? And wouldn't the assurance that one's own spiritual standing before God is firm and secure, that one's spouse is free to make an independent choice, only help to diffuse the tension in the marriage?

I'm not saying that I'm anywhere near a St. Mary of Egypt. I'm about as far from it as you can get. But it still seems like there's a significant parallel here. If so many ascetics have been such an important part of the Church while living in relative isolation, and if the life of a married believer is not supposed to differ significantly from that of a celibate in anything except that they are married, and if indeed marriage is an ascetic struggle in itself, why should a degree of isolation so much less than theirs be considered an insurmountable obstacle to conversion?

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