Side Effects of Adult Baptism

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Were you baptized as an adult? Were you surprised by the way you felt afterwards? Baptism into a new faith is an enormous life change. It is a beautiful and loving act of faith, but like so many beautiful things, it is hard-won, and it does not always lead straight to peace.

Like snowflakes, we human beings are all different. No two of us respond to any life event in exactly the same way, and this is true of baptism also. But as the years began to pass after my own baptism and I spoke to other people who converted as adults, I discovered there were things many of us had in common. The most powerful thing we had in common was our decision to become Orthodox, and our willingness to do the work that comes with such a momentous transformation. But that was not the whole story.

One of the first things I didn’t expect was the feeling of awakening. In every life, there are unresolved problems and unanswered questions. In my former faith life, I didn’t have the spiritual tools or context to address these things, so I just let them go numb. I stopped thinking about them, walked around them, stepped over them, ignored them.

When I became Orthodox, I felt that my inner being had come to life. This was a good feeling, but also a bad feeling. All the things I’d been stepping over and ignoring suddenly surged back to life, and I found I needed to address them after all. Oddly, this was reassuring. Before I was Orthodox, I used to feel like my faith was a toy with no batteries. If I wanted it to do anything, I had to pick it up and move it around myself. When I became Orthodox, my faith was like a toy with batteries. It could move under its own power! It could have effects on my life that didn’t originate with me.

Another surprising effect of baptism was that I suddenly felt the need to question every single decision I made. Before I was Orthodox, I knew everything I could possibly need to know. I had been in the same church my whole life, and I knew all the answers. I even knew the proper way to make up answers when I didn’t have any real ones!

But now, I was Orthodox. So every time I took a step and reached for my usual response to something, I paused. Did I still want that usual response? What would an Orthodox person do? This came up especially when I was parenting or making an important decision, but sometimes it came up when I was making an apparently small decision.

For example, I remember hearing an Orthodox mom casually mention her bedtime ritual with her children. I listened to her, and the other women she was talking to, and I felt lost. There’s a bedtime ritual? How would I know that? I would know if I had been raised Orthodox. I had no Orthodox memories to go on. Suddenly, I missed those Orthodox memories I didn’t have.

The wish for Orthodox memories manifests in another unexpected way. When you are baptized into a new faith, you give up all your traditions. All your holiday rituals are gone (as well as some of your holidays!), and your songs and prayers change, and the format of your service is different. All the things you were attached to are gone. They are gone because you chose a new faith in which they have no part, but they are also gone because you have lost the faith that gave them life. They are doubly gone. Even if you went back to them, they would no longer be there. Not the way they were when you believed in them.

Sometimes, the loss of a familiar thing can be a relief. If you loved everything about your old faith, you wouldn’t have been seeking a new one. But the loss of familiarity itself is hard to bear. It is a loss of affection, of the comfort of doing what you have done since childhood, since the beginning of all your memories. If you have ever moved to a new house, you know what this is like. You are cooking in your new kitchen, and you reach for a drawer that isn’t there. You can’t remember where you stored that spoon you need in this new kitchen. And for a few seconds, you wish very much for your old kitchen and the security of cooking in a place where you don’t have to think twice to reach for a spoon.

Time and patience with yourself can lessen this feeling. If you go to the services in your new Orthodox church over and over, with your new Orthodox friends, the services and the friends will start to become familiar. They will never be the prayers and the people of your childhood. But then, you are no longer the person you were in childhood. In time, you will learn the words of these new prayers by heart, and the music will start to play in your mind, even when you are not in church. You will find ways to encompass the realities of your spiritual adulthood. You will sift your past and keep what is worth treasuring. And slowly, you will attach to your new life.

by Melinda Johnson