As a Protestant—is that really now a past-tense state of affairs?—I only made one change of affiliation across denominational lines. I moved from the non-denominational (or as they self-labeled, “independent”) Christian Churches (Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement) to the Episcopal Church.
When I did so, I concerned myself with what I suspect most non-mainline Protestants and evangelicals concern themselves with: can I maintain my current beliefs; or on what beliefs am I willing to negotiate? As an Anglican, I was assured that I could keep my belief on baptismal regeneration by immersion which I had always had, that with regard to the Eucharist I could be either one who believed in the “Real Presence” or keep the Zwinglian beliefs in which I had been raised. (At that point I had moved well beyond Zwinglianism to a more sacramental understanding of the Lord’s Supper.) I could continue to believe that the Bible was the infallible word of God, continue to believe in substitutionary atonement, the bodily Resurrection of Christ from the dead, the union of the human and divine natures in the Person of Christ, and so on. All I really had to worry over was whether I could tolerate some of the theological liberalism that I ran into. I ultimately decided that I could—and felt so very mature and wise as a twenty-something in so doing: see how tolerant I am without losing my fundamental convictions!—and was subsequently confirmed as an Episcopalian by the laying on of hands by Bishop Peter of Springfield. Aside from a new embrace of a sacramental understanding of Christianity, my life didn’t change all that much from the way it had been.
When I first encountered Orthodoxy, it was the summer after my first quarter in seminary. Whew. After that experience I was ready to look elsewhere. And, just as I’d done before, I began to examine it from the standpoint of doctrine. The difficulty, however, is that my wife and I had each made huge sacrifices in coming to seminary, and with my pride reigning things in, it just didn’t seem feasible to change churches (again!) over doctrine. So, for about two years, I attended All Saints roughly every half-year, read a lot on Orthodoxy, and looked wistfully.
What changed things for me, however, was my daily Bible reading during the first week of June 2002. Early in the week, God hit me over the head, and in the heart, with Ephesians 5:21ff. I needed to make a change. Not doctrinal, but volitional. Even, to some extent, ontological. I needed to be(come) a better husband, a Christian husband. I had not lived up to my responsibility as a spiritual man in our home. At that time it was just Anna and me, and we hadn’t gone to any worship service for six months, and I had not lifted a finger to make sure we did. Now initially I didn’t really understand or even discern that only Orthodoxy could really fulfill that necessary change. Other Christian groups, marriage counseling, personal spiritual direction, and so on, all would be helpful and provide assistance toward that goal. But only the Orthodox Church—or, rather, only the grace of God at work in and through the Orthodox Church—could bring about the transformation.
As I said, I didn’t fully get that then. But what I did know is that if I wanted to be that spiritual man, that Christian husband I needed to be, the only place that could make that reality happen was the Orthodox Church. And so, on the Sunday of the Blind Man that year, I turned my face toward the Orthodox Church. And as it happened, in that service, the pericope of the Philippian jailer from Acts 16 was read, and I heard, what I took then, right or wrong, to be a promise to me: “You will be saved, you and all your household.”
I’ve related these things before, and I only review them here to say this: When I made that turn it wasn’t any longer about doctrine and beliefs. It was now about being different, about change and transformation. It was not about believing the things Orthodox believe, it was about being Orthodox. Or, just as true, about becoming Orthodox.
Sure, old habits and ways of interfacing with various realities die hard. So for the rest of 2002, along with regularly attending the worship at All Saints, I studied and wrote on some of the fundamental questions I had. I was trying to take on an Orthodox mind on various topics important to me and trying to see if they were coherent and could stand up to scrutiny. Clearly they could and did.
And then I met Father Seraphim Rose, via his biography. I found a copy of Not of This World (since fundamentally revised and republished as Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works) and spent the latter part of the autumn, and all of the winter reading it. Here was a man who was a gifted intellectual, a philosopher. But when he came to Orthodoxy he, as he put it, crucified his mind. He came to Orthodoxy for a change of heart.
Admittedly, when I first read the biography, I thought Father Seraphim was “strange.” I read about some of the things he did as he became Orthodox, of his transition to monastic living, and so forth, and shook my head in incomprehension. Indeed, one of my professors, about two years later, saw the copy of the revised biography on my desk in my office, and asked me about Father Seraphim. Somehow this self-admitted atheist who troubled over his mother-in-law teaching his son to pray over meals, knew enough about Father Seraphim to query me as to whether I thought it quite odd to take on a different name, to dress differently and so on just to become Orthodox. In this professor’s mind, all it should take was just a change of intellectual conviction.
Of course, I now see the essence of the things he did as quite normal, and not any longer “strange” at all. And I now see that one does not become Orthodox by way of the intellect but by way of the heart.
All of which is prolegomena to say this: I have known for a couple of years that there is a sharp split between my mind and my heart. I come by this split by way of natural temperament, with a way of interfacing with the world that is one of the mind over one of the heart. But my Protestant upbringing in the modernist culture of twentieth and twenty-first century U.S.A. has only exacerbated this tension and brought it near schism.
So I confess that it used to nearly infuriate me when Orthodox would affirm my more or less accurate grasp of one or more doctrine or historical point, but then go on to say what sounded to me like “You’re not Orthodox; you wouldn’t understand.” Don’t get me wrong, I have never, to my recollection, ever thought any Orthodox, online or in person, was being rude to me, even accidentally. But I thought, “What do you mean, I wouldn’t understand?! I’ve got a brain!” But that was just it. This wasn’t a matter of the brain.
As time wore on and I became much more influenced by Orthodox worship, as I began to pray more according to Orthodox norms, I began to realize the “You’re not Orthodox; you wouldn’t understand” was not actually a put-down, but, rather, a simple statement of fact. The Orthodox Faith is not a matter of intellectual content. It is a matter of the whole person: intellect, will, heart, body, soul.
Indeed, the experience of our chrismations has put quite the exclamation mark on the point. What I will say now I do not mean to in any way come off as a judgment of anyone else’s salvation, or in anyway to impugn any other Christian group. But I want to express as best I can the real difference I have perceived since our anointings and my first Holy Communion. I believe firmly that I was a Christian prior to this past Pentecost Sunday, and that my baptism at age seven was a real initiation into Christ. I really received forgiveness of sins. I really did receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. I really was a Christian. I believe this not because I think the Restoration Movement churches had the authority or the power to administer genuine sacraments. Rather I believe this because I know the mercy of God, I know that the Spirit is not contained within the visible limits of institutions (even divine-human ones), that, indeed, the Spirit, like the wind, goes where he will, and therefore, whatever one might say about the ecclesial and sacramental realities attending my baptism, that God, in his mercy honored the intent of all involved, not the least this sinner, and deigned to make me his child. I believe that, only by grace, if I had died prior to my chrismation, God would still have extended his mercy to me and accepted me into his Kingdom, by the virtues of Christ and the baptism I underwent at age seven.
But . . .
I had not yet, until this past Sunday, come to the fullness of the grace of Christ. That is probably a clumsy and perhaps even an inaccurate way to put it. And I want to be clear: I have not suddenly become full of the Holy Spirit, nor has my cellular structure changed. I’m still the same sinner I was before Sunday. I have still struggled to say my daily prayers. I have still struggled to perform a daily moral inventory. I still don’t properly understand the pragmatics of the mystery of confession. There are, I’m sure, a million and one ways I need to grow and change.
But underneath of and giving rise to any knowledge or understanding is the experience of being and becoming Orthodox. I am not talking about any sort of ecstasies or visions; no levitation or uncreated light. This is, I take it, simply the normal experience of the Orthodox Christian life. The difference is marked and noticeable. Indeed, tangible in some ways. But ordinary.
Yet, what a difference. I have not experienced anything like it in all my Christian life before. “The Kingdom of God is within you,” now has a different and wonderful sense. Yes, let me quickly affirm, the “you” is plural. But I am now a member of that “you,” and partake in that Kingdom. And the grace of it is that I can discern it.
The difference is qualitative and pervasive. I still struggle with distractedness in prayer. I haven’t suddenly become an hesychast. I still rub the sleep out of my eyes and yawn as I begin to pray. I still find it just as difficult to carve out time to read the Scriptures daily. Life continues on as it always has. But what I take with me and in me through that life is changed, and the experience is thus changed.
Being and becoming Orthodox, is, indeed, different than a Restoration Movement Christian being and becoming an Anglican. Indeed, so different as to not even be close to the same thing. The difference is the energy of the grace of the sacraments Anna and I experienced: confession and absolution, chrismation, and Holy Communion. A seal was put upon us, and I, for one, have been graced with a conscious and tangible awareness of that activity.
All of this of course is already being tested and remains yet to be tested some more. As I have expressed, I now have an even greater accountability and responsibility toward holiness of life and progress in virtue. But I also have a most wonderful sense of God’s presence. Something to cultivate and maintain.
As Father Seraphim said, “Don’t spill the grace. Keep it in your heart.”