Orthodoxy and the Returns of Love

Orthodoxy and the Returns of Love August 27, 2012

This summer marks the eleventh year of my conversion. I’ve spent the past eleven years standing awkwardly at post-church coffee hours, nodding at sermons, and weeping at baptisms.

And this summer, a few more motions were added to the litany of my frail, fragile movements in the church: I began crossing myself, bowing towards icons, and opening my mouth to receive warmed wine, blessed bread, the body of Christ pooled on the edge of a spoon.

I became Orthodox in the same month that I became a wife, and the rich irony of both occasions is not lost on me.

My husband, who grew up Episcopalian, converted to Orthodoxy in college, and my background in the Reformed church gave us an interesting courtship, where dates included vespers and long discussions about Marilynne Robinson and St. Athanasius.

I knew that Jeremy and I could sustain separate devotional lives, but neither of us wanted to be separated. And in the physical separation of our engagement (me in Michigan and Jeremy in Wyoming for grad school), I had to wrestle with the mixed lot of my faith life, my inclinations toward liturgy and my deep friendships with my Protestant friends, who rightfully wondered why I was so eager to change church traditions, particularly a church tradition that had been family to me.

What I faced in that wrestling was fear: fear that I would hurt the people I loved, fear that I wouldn’t be constant, fear that I would, somehow, be abandoned.

Growing up, we did common things for each other with the expectation that there would be some kind of return. If I did dishes, I expected that I could count on someone to pick me up after school. If I lent money to help with utility bills, I knew that I could later demand the more expensive prom dress. I was owed some kind of recognition for the uneven love I felt I was being given.

And somewhere in my thinking, I thought that God worked this way, too, that I could exchange belief for the return of a better life. That the faithfulness of showing up would reward me, somehow, with the love that I feared would never come: love of husband, love of family, and love of God.

The reason I became Orthodox was not practical, nor was it based on fear or expectation. I became Orthodox because, in it, I saw my own tendencies towards demand and fear refashioned.

I saw my belief that love was a tradeoff dissolve during my first confession, where, for the first time, I had nothing to exchange or offer that was any good, my priest’s stole cast around my shaking shoulders, my tears wetting the woodcut print of Christ crucified.

I became Orthodox because, in it, I was able to see salvation as more than a stasis of trust, or an attempt to keep a wavering vow. I was able to see it as I had longed for it, as a healing of soul and body.

My friends joked that our wedding ceremony would be an imitation of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, complete with grape stomping and Windex.

And there were some parts that must have looked odd to people—we were given crowns to wear during the ceremony, and at one point, our priests held our hands and led us in a circle around the altar, singing “Dance, O Isaiah, for the Virgin has given birth to Emmanuel.”

But in that dance around the altar, in the lighting of candles and the chanting of psalms, something larger than our happiness in each other was being offered to us. Our wedding was more than an exchange of vows, more than our saying yes to each other or our families and friends.

It was a holy light spilled over each one of us, generous, alive, so similar to the light that poured itself through the coffeehouse window I spent so many summer evenings staring through, birds ascending and descending the clear plastic birdfeeder hanging on the streetlight, the sunset creeping through the trees.

In becoming Orthodox, I have seen that God, more than waiting for me to return, has been bending me to him and holding me this whole time. Not one moment of my life has been lost.

The goal of salvation is not recompense for a difficult life, but the recovery of life, theosis, God moving us into a love that returns all things beyond our imagining. A love that brings us into a body that sustains, recovers, and makes new.

For eleven years, I have sought recovery. And I will continue to seek it, to wrestle and to dance with the true returns of love.

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