It All Started With Marie Kondo

Unless you’ve been living in a cave, you’ve heard of her. Her book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up is an international bestseller, and perpetually on request at the library where I work. Last spring, I decided to see what all the fuss was about. I expected an orderly makeup drawer, but reserved some skepticism for the book’s daring claim that Kondo’s methods would be life-changing.

Boy, was I wrong.

In case you don’t know how it works: you go through your belongings, touching each item to determine whether or not it “sparks joy.” If not, you (gratefully) relinquish it. We’ve all got junk in our trunks, and often, our belongings represent identity baggage—gifts that don’t suit us, things we’ve outgrown, items that represent who we’d like to be but just…aren’t. By applying Kondo’s process to my material goods, I was simultaneously stripping away what wasn’t me, and distilling the essence of who I actually am.

It felt great. To my surprise, this process quite naturally seeped into other parts of my life. I found myself evaluating obligations and paradigms. I bowed out of things. I passed torches. My life became more spacious, more peaceful.

This dovetailed nicely with my study of the Enneagram. Using this personality tool, I learned that, as a Four, my lifelong “quest” is one of identity and legitimacy. Ever on the hunt for a way to confirm my individuality, I despise herd mentality, buck trends, and continually explore ideas. According to Riso and Hudson,

“Fours enjoy being alone… [and are] Passionate about their relationships as well as their inner lives: willing to explore any feeling without judging it, they are the ‘deep-sea divers’ of the psyche. They emphasize beauty and enjoy expressing their feelings aesthetically….” (Understanding the Enneagram, 2000).

What does any of this have to do with my spiritual journey toward—and away from—Orthodox Christianity? Everything, it turns out. I was able to be honest with myself about the reasons I was attracted to the church in the first place, which were very ego-driven. One was its exoticism. I didn’t know anyone who was Orthodox. It set me apart.

That I could belong to such a mysterious sect! That I too could learn to bow at the right times and be permitted to partake of the Eucharist! My ego trembled with joy at the prospect.

I also converted because I’m an aesthete. Incense and choral music, mournful icons, the exchange of blessings, and the poetry of the liturgy really sent me. I remember admitting to someone shortly after my chrismation that I’d converted “primarily for aesthetic reasons.” I needed my church experience to be beautiful, and I didn’t see anything wrong with that. In many ways, I still don’t.

But once I was inside, things gradually lost some of that luster. I detected a certain country-club mentality within the church, a smugness about being Orthodox. The beautiful bowing people weren’t serene and Zenned-out when they weren’t in liturgy. Moreover, I wasn’t any different.

I’d been enchanted by the version of myself that I thought outsiders would see: interesting, part of some arcane tradition. I’d hoped to believe in that version of myself, hoped to really inhabit it so that I could feel special. I wanted to be someone else, someone exotic and esoteric and fascinating, so that I could love and accept myself. But inside, I was the same garden-variety me, and I knew it. I’d been trying to convert from the outside in, instead of the other way around. It felt gross and wrong, Pharisaical.

I also really, really didn’t like not being able to participate in the Eucharist. Jesus is for everyone—even doubters like me, who grapple with the fundaments of their faith on the daily. Now I wonder if it isn’t inappropriate to withhold the Eucharist from someone. If I’d been permitted to partake of it when I first began visiting the Orthodox Church, would I have converted? Would I have converted so quickly?

Yesterday I went to an Episcopal church near my house, simply because I knew I wouldn’t be denied the Eucharist. As much as I struggle with everything and question whether Christ was the only son of god, there is something mystical and important and sacred in the act of eating that holy communal “meal.” As the priest pressed the little lump of bread into my hand, he smiled and said, “The bread of Heaven.” Something in my heart sang out, a single note, true and pure as the resonance of a tuning fork.

I want that bread.


  1. This essay reminds me of an old lady I know named Σοφία, who emigrated from Greece many years ago and is a long-standing member of the second oldest (by a mere six months) Greek Orthodox parish in Ohio. I am reminded of her, because she is an outsider. Everyone thinks she is a good and compassionate soul, but she does not quite fit in. She is not exceptionally sociable. But as a priest once described her to me (and I knew too from her personally), noting her works of love, she has a “heart of gold.” He was quite right in that assessment. Every “country club” has its “outsiders” who are nevertheless crucial members of the club. Are some persons or groups of persons Pharisees—in the pejorative sense? Well, pardon my facetiousness, but welcome to the human race. No new thing. This is how it is in any association that aspires to nobility, virtue, or even θέωσις.

    Look at the composition of your essay. You give the entire concluding paragraph to one sentence. “I want that bread.” Just think of that grammatically and what it means.

    Doubts about Providence. Doubts about the virtues of nitwit churchgoers. Doubts about church administration. Doubts about the wretched evil that pervades this life and that most believers indeed choose to ignore or fraudulently explain away. These are matters for the believer to grapple with. These are lamentations one finds in Holy Scripture. Whether, on the other hand, you get an open invitation solely of your own desire (“I want that bread”)? A different matter entirely.

    The communal part of the Eucharistic is not defined by whether a wide enough swath of us is permitted to partake of it. It’s not a question of how liberally folk are included. It is defined by whether we are in communion with one another. And you know what? I’ll be the first to tell you that it saddens me to see folk in churches I have known over my years who have no knowledge of their fellow parishioners or who have gone through no μετάνοια or ἐξομολόγησις before they step up for the Body and Blood of Christ, which to them is little more than … well, since it’s a matter of social inclusion rather than repentance and cognizant communion with Christ, little more than country club membership. The country club is not always a hifalutin society. Sometimes it is what we make up in order to grant ourselves the illusion of membership in something we neither comprehend nor genuinely revere.

    I’ll take you and your friendship over the dogmatic converts who have read ten times the pages in the Church Fathers than I have in one tenth the time, white-washed sepulchers and whatnot that some may be, but your remarks in this essay are entirely unfair to the dogma and the spirit of Orthodoxy. You’re going through something, and perhaps you will never return to the Orthodoxy Church, but you have given that Orthodox Church a seriously raw deal in how you’ve written of it here.

    1. Why? Please help me understand what part of this is unfair. I’m confused, especially since the thrust of this entry was to expose my own ego-oriented reasons for converting, rather than to bawl out the church.

      I’ve always been a person who loved myself based on what I thought others saw when they looked at me, not what I have seen when I look within myself. That’s not a fun, sexy, cool thing to admit. But it’s the truth. That’s what I’m after here. My own truth. I’m not on a mission to defame the church.

      That being said, I do have serious qualms with the idea of communion being withheld from people. I’ve been to non-denominational churches where the communion service was set up on picnic tables in the back of the sanctuary for people to serve themselves. That seemed careless and crude. But it feels like the other end of the spectrum to give it to some and not others. And you yourself admit that many of the Orthodox partakers are not necessarily participating in the right spirit. So if the body and blood of Christ is being profaned in some way by passing into their lips, then how could it be any less profaned by passing into the lips of an unorthodox person who genuinely wants union and understanding and absolution? In a sense, we all profane what is pure. To withhold communion seems to me to be an attempt to control god, to control the spirit of god, to exercise jurisdiction over a kingdom which is not our own.

      1. It is to your credit, my friend, that you note in your comment as well as your essay that you are examining your ego-driven motives, and it is further to your credit that you admit to that most common of human foibles: namely, loving oneself based on what one thinks others think of oneself. This suggests our fallen nature and our need for a physician to heal our malady. On that note, let me then address the final remarks in your reply.

        The easiest thing for me to do (and therefore, of course, I shall do it) is to note these words from the Apostle Paul to the church in Corinth:

        Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.

        I Corinthians 11:27-29 (KJV). Think too of the Last Supper itself. Who dined with the Lord there? His closest associates, His Apostles, those whom He had chosen—and, not insignificantly, mind you, those included one whom He had chosen and yet who would betray Him. The importance of both membership in the Church and self-examination and repentance are well established from the earliest days of Christianity. In my own life, I have only one time seen someone turned away from the Eucharist. I felt bad for the man, but he was a stranger, not known to the priest, and not Orthodox. Our Communion should be an experience where we are together, known to one another, and where we are with God, penitent of our sins and prepared for the Body and Blood of Christ as the Apostle instructs. Should more be turned away? I will, as a mere layman not especially inclined to encroach on the choices of priests, say in any case, probably so. We should confess, be known to our priests, have fellowship—at the very least—with the rest of the parish. But, beneath that, at a bare minimum can we at least require, in trying to show some adherence to Scripture and the rest of Tradition, that those who approach for the Eucharist be actual members of the Orthodox Church? I really don’t think this question should be in any doubt, and indeed perhaps further questions should be asked of those who approach.

        Your iteration of yourself as having converted for being an aesthete reminds me of a famous story about Prince Vladimir of Kiev. In the 10th century he sent his emissaries to Ἁγία Σοφία, the Church of Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, and they reported back to him that, in the Divine Liturgy there, they could not discern whether they were in heaven or on earth. Beauty, properly regarded, is no mere superficial thing. It is, in fact, an essential thing in the Orthodox faith. Your self-reproach here is at least to some degree a credit to you. That is, if you are reproachful of a regard for beauty that is only a superficial thing, merely interest in “prettiness” or what is artificially pleasing.

        As I said in my last comment, I’ll gladly take your attempt at Orthodox praxis over those who are dogmatists without true dogma and self-appointed theologians without theology. On top of the commendations I noted at the beginning of this comment, I again credit your honesty. If I say, though, that you have given Orthodoxy a raw deal, I mean to say that somehow you have failed to touch the mind-set or perspective on the world (φρόνημα) of the Orthodox faith. Perhaps your fellow parishioners failed you in this. Perhaps your spiritual father or mother, if you had one, fell short. Or perhaps you didn’t give it enough time or pray or what-have-you as much as you might have needed. I scarcely know. I’ll iterate too, though, something I seem to recall I said in reply to your previous essay: we come to the Orthodox Church by invitation (some of us fortunate enough to get the easy invitation from conception, when one or both of our parents are Orthodox): if this has not been working out for you, it may well be part of God’s intent for how you might find your way and arrive at the party by some “Un-Orthodox” path. I think that you have not gotten a good first grasp of Orthodoxy, but I haven’t the foggiest idea who is to blame, if anyone.

        Please forgive me if in any way I have seems to have judged you harshly over this. You know, I think, that I only regard you well and sympathize as best I can with the struggle you go through. I wish more Orthodox (or “Un-Orthodox”) blogs were as candid as yours.

      2. Your comment is a beautiful example of what I’ve been trying to describe. However, I know that from where you’re sitting, you are very, very justified in your perspective, and that you’re defending something that is to you precious and little understood. You may be right when you say that I’ve failed to grasp some essential element of Orthodoxy. Each of us understand what we understand, from our particular position/culture/time/etc., as in the Parable of the Blind Men and the Elephant. The mistake, it seems to me, is to call our personal understanding a blessing, or a truth.

        O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
        For preacher and monk the honored name!
        For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
        Such folk see only one side of a thing.

        Udana 68-69

      3. In candor, I don’t even know what that means, “our personal understanding.” Surely my remarks are imbued with my private grasp of Orthodoxy from my youth, but I have enunciated doctrine and dogma to you. I should hope I have done so with the proper and objective spirit. In any case, this is no mere “personal understanding” that underlies my remarks.

      4. I believe that all understanding is personal. That is, if any objective Truth can be apprehended by the human mind where the numinous is concerned, it is fractional at best. I acknowledge that the doctrine and dogma behind which you stand (and other types of doctrine and dogma) are attempts to define such a capital-T truth, to codify it for all humanity. If it works for you, that’s super. God can use anything, to reach anyone, and I’m glad that you find the Orthodox Christian approach to be personally meaningful and enriching.

  2. I found your blog because I just read Marie Kondo’s book and am trying to get up my courage to try out her method. I’m glad to hear it worked for you. But I’m also glad to find another spiritual quest-er! I wish you wisdom on your journey and strength to listen to both your mind and your heart!

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