Becoming Orthodox

I was asked by an enquirer how to continue the journey towards membership of the Orthodox Church in our Coptic Orthodox community, and I responded in this way…

God bless you in your continuing spiritual journey into union with him, by the indwelling Holy Spirit.

I became a member of the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1994, after 4 or 5 years of serious enquiry, and I was ordained a priest 9 years ago in 2009. When I became Orthodox it was perhaps more difficult because the Coptic Orthodox, and other Orthodox Churches in the UK, were very ethnically focussed and mostly used languages other than English. It was very providential that I was able to become part of the Coptic Orthodox Church in a community within the Church which used English. But now, there are so many youth and children for whom English is the first language, and certainly in the places where I pray, there is an increasing use of English at all times, with a varying mixture of Arabic and Coptic.

The journey has several components not least – spiritual, theological and practical. Even when we are not formally Orthodox and have not been received into the Church we can begin to develop a more Orthodox spirituality, a more Orthodox theological understanding, and a more Orthodox practice.

The aim of the Orthodox spiritual life is union with God by the indwelling Holy Spirit and the practice of unceasing prayer, therefore everything in the Church life is intended to support and encourage and facilitate this relationship with God. Praying from the Agpeya in the morning and evening develops a space in the day which roots us in God’s presence, but the Scriptures instruct us to pray without ceasing, and we do this, through the use and development of the habit of praying the Jesus Prayer. This is the short prayer – Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me. We can also use it to pray for others, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on X. And we can use it to express repentance, Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. What is important is that we try to pray this prayer with attention as much as possible.

We should also begin to thank God for everything that we receive each day, and to watch our thoughts and attitudes so that we repent immediately and frequently. If we have pressing needs or concerns for others, then these should also drive us to prayer, so that with the Agpeya, the Jesus Prayer, thanksgiving, repentance and frequent supplications, we are very often turning to God in prayer. We do not do this to please God, or as if we have to convince him, but prayer itself, from the heart, leads us into God’s presence, and in his presence is life and light.

As soon as we become aware that we have fallen away from the remembrance of God we should begin again, and every time we forget God we should take up the Jesus Prayer again, or pray the Lord’s Prayer. At the beginning, while establishing a habit, this requires effort and persistence, but in time the remembrance of God comes easier if we seek it always, and the presence of God, who says to the heart – I am with you – is the reward of prayer.

But it seems to me that there are other things we need to be doing, so that we act with understanding and conviction. We need to grow in an Orthodox understanding of the sacraments for instance, since these are the means by which God gives his life to us, the life that is to be worked out in prayer and loving service to others. We need to grow in understanding and appreciation of the life of the Church and the teachings of the Church – and not everything we are told by everybody is a teaching of the Church. Some of this growth in understanding comes from instruction we are given, but there is also a necessary growth which comes from our own questions, why is this done? what does this mean?

The aim is to be and become a disciple, and this means essentially learning a way of life, and not just learning facts and dates and propositions.

There are books which I would recommend that you read, and which many English speaking converts to Orthodoxy have found useful. These include..

The Orthodox Way by Metropolitan Kallistos Ware
The Way of the Ascetics by Tito Colliander
The Way of the Pilgrim trans by R.M. French

You can see that these all take the point of view that Orthodoxy is a way of life before it is a list of facts and propositions. But there are many other useful books which can be introduced. Nevertheless it is necessary to avoid an intellectualisation of faith, as if there is an exam which needs to be passed. We need rather to make sure that our study is at the service of our increasing union with God in the heart. This is why it is also important that we read the Bible, especially the Gospels. and we should try to read a chapter a day, so that in 3 months we have read all four Gospels and can begin again.

I have some videos which you might watch with benefit. They are short presentations I recorded in Egypt for one of the Coptic TV channels. You can find them here…

And there is another selection of videos available here…

I would advise against joining too many Facebook groups. Not every group presents Orthodox in the same way. Small differences can become the subject of exchanges between others that lead only to confusion and discouragement. It is better to have a few trusted supporters and to learn the Orthodox way through discipleship. Through sharing a life together.

What do I recommend? Begin to increase your life of prayer as I describe. Be faithful in reading a chapter from the Gospels each day. Watch these videos, read these books, and ask questions. I am available to support you at all times and will always try to respond in a helpful manner as you continue your journey, and I will pray for you each day.

The Lord bless you and preserve you in peace

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