I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s mother this week. I had never met her, but felt I knew what kind of amazing mother she was through my friend’s stories and reminisces. Her life was defined by her strong and active Roman Catholic faith, a loving marriage and her large, close-knit family. These were the things that united her family around her in life and in death – boundless love and a shared and practiced faith. To see her family actively participate in the funeral mass and carry on her life of faith was the most beautiful and affirming thing I’ve witnessed in a long time. Please remember the servant of God Katherine in your prayers.
The value of a common faith cannot be too strongly emphasized. In 2 Corinthians 6:14-15, St. Paul talks about the danger of entering into a marriage with non-believers.
14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?
Speaking as one convert to other Orthodox converts, or to anyone who finds themselves in a faith that is radically different from one’s family, this lesson in familial unity is bittersweet. As converts we often live in a spiritual vacuum as isolated practitioners of a religion that is foreign or downright blasphemous to the people we truly wish to be accepted and affirmed by. I have heard of Orthodox converts who, like the saints, have been rejected by their families, or even been threatened with physical harm for following Christ into the Orthodox faith. They live their lives in dread of family gatherings, conflicts over the holidays, or the proselytizing by well-meaning friends who want to bring them back into truth. Their chrismation or baptism day is celebrated alone and without the joy of spouse or family participation, and their children are placed in a spiritual tug-of-war. Others have made compromises by becoming Orthodox in their hearts, but wishing to be peacemakers and a Christian example, wait years for resistance to diminish before formally converting.
In my life, seventeen years as a convert have worn me down almost to despair by the, at best, scoffing and criticism of my own spouse, at worst, his scorn, ridicule and outright hostility towards my faith and the faith of my children. God forgive my sin for looking with envy at families who are strong in their faith, or whose spouses support their decision with tolerance and good-will. But who knows what is best for me but God. Maybe if my faith life was all sweetness and light I wouldn’t be so committed and unwavering. That’s the curious power of persecution.
Many converts, and I blame myself too, can be so zealous in their initial dive into their new faith that it can feel like being caught in a whirlwind to a resistant or spiritually disinterested spouse. They might think it’s only a fad, or if you persist, that there must be something cultish about the church that has sucked you in. Their erroneous beliefs get reinforced by Orthodox practices like fasting, prayers to the saints, kissing icons or a priest’s hand. Maybe as a new convert we go a little overboard, but it’s done for the best of reasons – love of God’s Holy Church. Only time gives a sense of perspective and moderation that will guide you for a lifetime of devotion and service to the Church. However, by that time, your family or spouse have very often written you off as a hopeless nut job.
If you’re expecting me to give you some big, “happily-ever-after” ending or my uplifting testimonial and advice, you’ll have to read another convert’s blog. Don’t leave without hope though. I’ve come to realize that my spiritual happiness isn’t dependent on the approval or acceptance of anyone else but Christ. Christ is in me and no matter what comes from the outside, that can’t be driven out. This was the undoing of the Communist governments or anyone who finds themselves in an oppressive home situation, because the oppressor cannot truly get inside someone’s heart and mind. The idea that every man is an island is so true and my island has an Orthodox Church on it. That is where my heart and soul are.
I don’t know if my poor example of faith will do much, but St. Paul had a very clear idea of what it meant to live an unequally yoked life and what promise it held. God must have a plan for me in this intolerable situation and I just have to trust him.
1 Corinthians 7:13-16 13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?