Before I entered the Orthodox Church approximately two years ago, I read many books about Orthodox theology, life, and practice in order to acquaint myself with what I would be getting myself into if I decided to become Orthodox. Weeks before entering the Church, I was sure that I possessed what knowledge I needed and was ready to become Orthodox. I soon realized I was wrong. I am convinced that one of the (many) things I was utterly unprepared for was the completely different mindset that Orthodoxy has about Christian life. The Orthodox mindset about the Christian life insists on centering one’s entire being and energy on becoming like Jesus Christ. This kind of Christian life requires one to die daily, to crucify oneself and one’s own fleshly desires, and to be in perpetual repentance in order to wake ourselves up to the reality that we are called to be gods, to be by grace what Christ is by nature. Yet, paradoxically, this self-emptying life supplies us with great joy, for we know we rely not on our own strength, but on the might of the uncreated God who pours out his uncreated grace upon the entire cosmos.
Contrary to this view and mindset, much of my becoming Orthodox was purely my own intellectual pursuit of the historic Church instead of an integrated effort of my entire self to become like God. Although this is not a bad reason to investigate Orthodoxy, this reason by itself is not enough to sustain a healthy and complete Orthodox life and mindset. The new book Why Orthodoxy offers the humble conversion story of Ryan Hunter, a Roman Catholic who came to the Orthodox Church in 2010 while an undergraduate university student in Washington DC. He was searching not only for Truth, correct doctrine, and the historic Church but also a deep and abiding love for Christ and desire to be like him.
“I am in love” were the first words my eyes came across as I came to the first page of the novel. I thought that this was a strange way to begin a book detailing one’s reasons for becoming Orthodox, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. If God became Man and gave his love to humanity, it only makes sense for us to give our same love back to God and the Church he established on earth. For, “we love because he first loved us” as St. John the Theologian writes (1 John 4:19).
This love Hunter has for Christ and the Church becomes evident in the structure of his book. He begins his first section talking about the beauty of the worship present in the Divine Liturgy, the main Eucharistic service of the Orthodox Church in which the faithful gather to worship as the united Body of Christ. For the Orthodox Christian, this is a natural starting place, for one of the primary ways we become like Christ is through communally receiving Christ’s own body and blood and having his own life live inside of us to transform us unto his likeness. For, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20). Hunter beautifully and succinctly expresses this idea when he says:
Within the life of the Church, our path to theosis [union with God by becoming like Christ] is not some lonely climb on our own unique “spiritual journeys” as an island unto ourselves, for such an approach to faith leaves anyone ultimately feeling alone and vulnerable. Nor is the Church’s admonition that life in Christ requires a life lived together as His living Body a burdensome, narrow-minded insistence that we obey its “rules”. Rather, the Church insists we partake of and unite with the Body of Christ literally, communally, and liturgically because she recognizes the most basic truth about the human person: man is created in the image of God, and thus finds his highest fulfillment as someone who worships God and rejoices in His presence. The Church holds that the most beautiful and fulfilling way to worship God is in the Divine Liturgy, her principal worship service. Man is thus, at his core, a liturgical creature.
Using the Divine Liturgy as his starting point and anchor, Hunter works through what exactly drew him to Orthodoxy, including the inner spiritual unity of the Church, the aesthetic beauty present in Orthodox parishes, the veneration of icons and intercession of the saints, the increasingly legalistic and scholastic theology of the Roman Catholic Church after the Great Schism, and the soteriological (concerning salvation) views of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Church. He mentions again and again how the beauty of the liturgical worship and practice of Orthodoxy heals one’s soul to become more like Jesus Christ and bring an awareness of God into every moment, thereby transforming one into a complete human being. Hunter certainly provides an in-depth discussion of the differing theological views of the two churches, but this theology is always explained within the context of what it means to live as an Orthodox Christian.
It also becomes evident that (along with most young Christians today) Hunter has experienced many trials and temptations as one reads Why Orthodoxy. He laments the difficulties of living a devout Christian life in the university environment where sex, drugs, and drinking are the norm, encouraging the seeker of Christ to remain faithful despite these temptations. He mentions the death of his twin brother, Sean, shortly after they were both born. But the amazing thing is that Hunter does not remain despondent about these sorrows; rather, he rejoices in the God who has ordained everything for the salvation of humanity. Hunter writes:
And so I live. When I was reading the Psalms the other day, my eyes fell to the opening of Psalm 33: “I will bless the Lord at all times; His praise shall continually be in my mouth. My soul shall be praised in the Lord.” What a joy it is to be alive! I will never know why God took my brother so soon from this earth, or why He wished me to remain here, but I feel a sense of wonderment and awe that I live. If my brother could pass away so soon, if hospital doctors were certain I was supposed to grow up mentally handicapped and bound to a wheelchair or even blind for life, and yet now I am as I am, what incomparable power God has, what mystery He works beyond our understanding! Oftentimes I feel overwhelmed with joy and gladness that I am alive. Life truly is a mystery. I recall Psalm 145 “Praise the Lord, O my soul, I shall praise the Lord as long as I live, I shall sing praises to my God while I have being.” This is the joy that grips me every day of my life.It is this joy that I wish to one day have as an Orthodox Christian, which is the same joy that Christ gives us in His strength. "Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh,” says Christ to the multitudes (Luke 6:21). It is clear that Hunter is one who understands this saying.
I would highly recommend Why Orthodoxy to anyone seeking a deeper connection with Christ and His Church. One will learn not only from Hunter’s in-depth theological knowledge but also from his love of Christ.