My Discoveries in the Orthodox Church
In two previous essays (“Starting from Cane Ridge” and “The Road to Canterbury”), I described these two early periods of my faith journey in largely chronological order. For these two periods of my life there have been relatively clear and distinct time markers. I grew up in and trained for ministry among the Restoration Movement churches. Toward the end of that training, while still at college, I began to investigate the Anglican tradition. And though for a time these two faith traditions overlapped, still the pathways are fairly clear.
The road markers for my journey to Antioch, my inquiry into the Orthodox Church, however, are much more muddled, scattered here and there along previous roadways, seen now as portents of things to come, but known then as only so much new experience, as simple signposts which I was then unable to read. The relating of my investigations into Orthodoxy, then, runs scattershot at first through the stages of my experience in the Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement churches just prior to becoming acquainted with Anglicanism, then through my initial searching in the Anglican tradition, and finally to the culmination of my experience in that tradition as I turned away from the Episcopal Church to finally look with focused attention at the Orthodox Church.
My experience of Orthodoxy can therefore be roughly charted along five time markers: the years prior to the summer of 2000, the months from June 2000 to January 2002, from June 2002 to September 2003 (the “gap” from January to June 2002 will be addressed in due course), from September 2003 to the Sunday of Orthodoxy and our entry into the Cathecumenate, the Catechumenate from the Sunday of Orthodoxy to Pentecost, and our entry into the Church on Pentecost.
1. Encounters with Orthodoxy prior to June 2000
As has been told elsewhere, by the summer of 2000 I had looked outside my own heritage churches to find that longed-for connection to the historic Church and had made my way to Anglicanism in the belief that I had found it there.
But the search had antecedents that predated my Anglican investigations. The first event in which I can recall this longing began to manifest itself with the purchase, in January 1987 between semesters of my freshman at Ozark Christian College, at the college bookstore of the Lightfoot and Harmer Greek and English single volume edition of The Apostolic Fathers. Here was my first attempt to find out what the early Church taught and believed. A seed had been planted as I spent the next semester reading through the Apostolic Fathers. I had no real understanding of what I was reading, but it both satisfied and intensified my longing for a connection to the New Testament Church.
The next event occurred about four years later. In the spring of 1991, just prior to my graduation from college, I prepared for a conditional baptism. I was seeking some certainty and authenticity about my baptism at age seven, especially in light of the fact that my life as an adolescent was godless and immoral. The preparation brought to my attention, for the first time, the Jesus Prayer, and aside from the Lord’s Prayer, was my first experience with an ancient prayer of the Church. All my experience to this point had been oriented solely around extemporaneous praying.
In the summer of that year (1991) I read the first edition of Peter Gilquist’s Becoming Orthodox. This was my first real and formal introduction to the Orthodox Church. During this time I had been investigating Anglicanism (and later that autumn, I would seriously consider, if only briefly, the Roman Catholic Church), so I cannot say how or why I chose to buy the book. Perhaps it was knowing that one of the persons noted in the book, now Fr. Gregory Rogers, was an alumnus of Lincoln Christian Seminary, where I later earned my M. A. in contemporary theology and philosophy. In any case, though it did allay my concerns related to Mary and the Tradition, it still seemed to me that Orthodoxy was too foreign, too ethnic for me. Which is ironic, considering that Gilquist’s book recounts the journey of a couple of thousand of evangelicals to Orthodoxy. But there you have it. To me Orthodoxy was foreign.
A few months later, in the autumn, I read The Way of a Pilgrim and was reintroduced to the Jesus Prayer. But by this time I was more intent on assimilating ancient Christian spiritual disciplines in my life than in understanding Orthodoxy any further.
After that, my encounters with Orthodoxy were infrequent, though they continued to be bookish. I read Timothy Ware’s The Orthodoxy Church in the autumn of 1992 and his The Orthodoxy Way in the summer of 1996. Daniel Clendenin’s two books, from an evangelical Protestant perspective, helped to further clarify some points of concern in the spring of 1995. But although in the spring of 1993 I did purchase a few Orthodox prayer books and a small laminated icon, I was still very much the intellectual tourist. And these items were being used to deepen my exploration and experience of, ironically enough, Anglicanism. I made no real use of these things, at least not on their own terms. I merely knew about them.
2. Orthodox Encounters June 2000 through January 2002
From my last couple of years Ozark Christian College (1990-1991) till my decision to leave the priestly vocation discernment process in ECUSA in January 2002, I was moving into, then back out of, Anglicanism. Although in those years
I acquired icons and prayer ropes, there was no real assimilation of Orthodox worship and prayer, and only infrequent reading of Orthodox books. Indeed, my first visit to the Divine Liturgy took place in October 1998, at St. Mary’s in Omaha, Nebraska, during a three-week stay while I was training with a company for which I had just been hired. I had already been an Episcopalian for two years, and so I went mostly out of curiosity. It was a beautiful and moving experience, but it still felt too foreign to me, especially now with my developing Anglo-Catholic ethos. I would not visit another Divine Liturgy until July 2000.
In the spring of 2000, I had begun attending an Episcopal seminary as part of a discernment process for a priestly vocation in the Episcopal Church. After a scant three months, I was shocked and angered. I had seen the Gospel mocked, godly Christian men and women ridiculed, and the Scriptures dismissed with a wave of the hand–all because these things spoke against, or these persons by their lives revealed the futility of, the majority’s political agenda. I very nearly decided not to go back once the term ended. And in time I would come to the conclusion that the forms and structures of the national Episcopal Church, as well as a plurality of dioceses, had been so corrupted by heresy and the grab for power, had been so wed to a singular political agenda, that no reform was forthcoming. I would risk the spiritual well-being of my family to have stayed. And in my mind I was called first to be a priest in my family, not to the institution that is the Episcopal Church.
But as it turned out, at the end of that first term, a serendipitous receipt of a postcard from Frank Schaeffer’s Regina Orthodox Press, advertising a videotape of an interview on the program “Calvin Forum” (hosted by Bob Meyering) with Frank Schaeffer, son of the famous Presbyterian theologian Francis Schaeffer, led to what became a six-year inquiry into Orthodoxy.
I purchased and watched the video. I recalled the Gilquist book I had read some nine years ago. And that old longing for the historic Church and its real presence was reawakened after the disillusionment I had recently experienced.
After watching the video, a chain of connections unrolled in the space of about a month which would put in place two very important factors: a disciplined study of Orthodoxy and a parish in which to experience the Orthodox faith and life. It was that latter reality that has made all the difference.
Having watched the Schaeffer video, I did some searching and found his book Dancing Alone at a local library, and checked it out and read it. More research led to two of Frederica Mathewes-Green’s books, Facing East and At the Corner of East and Now. A few weeks later, on a trip home to Wichita, Kansas, over the Fourth of July, I visited my favorite bookstore, Eighth Day Books, and purchased the revised edition of Peter Gilquist’s Becoming Orthodox as well as the book he edited, Coming Home of personal accounts of how men from various Protestant backgrounds had become Orthodox priests. There would be many more like this.
This initial interest and burst of reading generated many sessions of surfing the web, looking for information on the Orthodox Church. From the books that I’d read, as well as many web links, I found the website of the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and through it’s parish directory search got the information for All Saints Orthodox Church. I contacted the parish pastor, Archpriest Patrick Reardon, and was warmly invited to come worship at the Divine Liturgy.
At this point I had almost decided not to return to seminary, and, in fact, to leave the Episcopal Church altogether. I had discovered Orthodoxy, and in the space of about a month and a half had been so drawn to what I had learned of the Orthodox Church that I was now wondering if I shouldn’t continue my Christian pilgrimage, leave Canterbury, as it were, and continue on to Antioch. In fact, I made a list of resolutions in which I began to attempt to appropriate the life of the faith of the Ancient Church. As far as I could then tell, it wasn’t Anglicanism that had that life, but Orthodoxy. And so the last resolution was that if I ever left ECUSA, I would become Orthodox.
Of course, the question is properly raised: How could I so suddenly, having just started at seminary to discern a vocation to the priesthood in the Episcopal Church–and having uprooted my family and limited our employment and educational choices–even think of abandoning the Episcopal Church? Hadn’t I spent about five years investigating Anglicanism before my confirmation? Hadn’t I spent four years trying to further assimilate Anglo-Catholic traditions into my faith practice? Hadn’t Anna and I worked hard to come to some compromise about the Episcopal Church, my confirmation being something she had been opposed to? Was I ready to throw all that away?
Not yet. My journal entries at the time were full of ambivalence. My initial picture of the Episcopal Church had been fueled and fed by Robert Webber’s, Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail. But the picture that book had presented was now a decade and more out of date. In fact, one may well question whether Webber’s optimism of the place of evangelicals in ECUSA was either unfounded or misplaced. I now had a more realistic understanding of where the national church was and where it was headed. My questions now had less to do with whether or not I was called to the priesthood, but whether, if so called, I could serve without compromising my faith or putting my family at spiritual risk. Still, my parish priest was a significant influence through his friendship and pastoral mentoring. And my bishop was an example of godly leadership against the tide of rejection of biblical and traditional norms of faith and life.
And, given my experience of judging a church on the basis of reading alone, I was much less sanguine that reading a handful of books and surfing the internet was a solid basis for making a change that would involve scrapping the hard work and planning that had brought us to Chicago in the first place.
Still and all, Orthodoxy beckoned, so on 23 July 2000, I worshipped for the second time at an Orthodox Church. I went to the Divine Liturgy at All Saints.
I was absolutely blown away. Since Fr. Patrick was out of town that weekend, a deacon from another parish served the typika liturgy. The service was still foreign to me. And the differences in pious practices was evident. I genuflected whereas everyone else bowed. I crossed myself backwards (or was it the parishioners who were crossing themselves the “wrong” way?). I bowed at the Gloria Patri, whereas everyone else crossed themselves (though many also bowed). The singing was a capella, which would have called to mind some worship experiences in some of my heritage churches, except that the hymns sung were all unfamiliar to me. I recognized, of course, the Pater Noster, the Sursum Corda, the Nicene Creed (sans filioque) and a few other pieces of the Liturgy, but the rest of it was a jumble, despite the copies of the Liturgy (with explanation) in the pew.
But what wasn’t foreign to me was the content of what I was hearing. At the seminary I had already been subjected to liturgies that eliminated the Fatherhood of God, that struck out the human maleness of Jesus, that replaced robust Trinitarianism with bland Sabellianist notions of a monochrome God, that nixed confession of my personal acts of sin, and that offered a running critique of the Tradition as patriarchal, oppressive, and, well, outdated. Here, however, all of that which had been denied me at the seminary liturgies was present in all its fullness. Here the Trinity was confessed in full, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Here Jesus’ two natures, united in one Person, was confessed and expressly linked to the cause of our salvation. Here God was Father, fully and completely. Here our sins were confessed in a variety of ways. Here the Tradition was alive, fully vibrant, and salvific.
If I could have, I would have become Orthodox right then.
But, in God’s wisdom, he has blessed me with a wife that frequently intervenes to bring me to a more level-headed and realistic path of action. Some time after worshipping at All Saints, I was still enthusiastic about the Orthodox Church, and in a conversation my wife and I were having, that intensity shone through. But she bluntly and firmly drew the conversation to a close by saying, “We’re not changing churches again.”
That accomplished God’s purpose, which was to give me pause and to deeply consider the claims of Orthodoxy. It is not a coincidence, then, that I did not return to worship at All Saints for some six months. Nor is it a coincidence that I decided to return, after all, to seminary. I determined that I should try to enter more deeply into the Anglo-Catholic traditions I had known as a way of surviving the seminary experience.
But I did not stop my pursuit of and inquiry into the Orthodox Church.
After a couple of months actively engaging with Orthodoxy, I returned to my Anglican ethos and tried to find within it resources to overcome what I took to be its weaknesses and failure. I sought this mainly in traditional liturgical forms and pieties. I tried to use the 1928 prayer book and the Anglican Service Book. I read some of the Carolinian divines. But I found that this retreat into the Anglican past, good and holy though it was, did little more than emphasize that the Episcopal Church was, in my view, going further and further down a road I not only did not want to go, but one I was certain would end in destruction.
In January 2001 I began more fully to realize these things, so I took a very conscious step back toward Orthodoxy by purchasing an Orthodox prayer book and a translation of the Septuagint psalter. These soon became my sole means of personal prayer. I gave up the Anglican prayer book for good. Also that month, I again visited All Saints Orthodox Church.
During the next few months, my life was incarnate ambivalence. I had one foot pointing to the world of Orthodoxy, and one toward the Episcopal Church. I had grown increasingly unclear as to my diocesan status as an aspirant, and was coming to the conclusion that my search for holy orders was effectively over. I talked with my parish priest and he contacted the bishop. The three of us arranged a lunch meeting in May. That meeting even more firmly solidified the backing of my bishop, especially given we were of like mind on many current matters in ECUSA.
Still, despite being in limbo for some months, yet now having a clear green light, I was disappointed. Had the bishop cut me loose, my decision would have been clear and relatively easy. Now I was forced to do ever more thinking. ECUSA or Orthodoxy?
For Mother’s Day, May 2001, and again in June, my wife graciously accompanied me to two Orthodox Liturgies. The first was at Sts Peter and Paul Orthodox Church in Glenview, the second was her first visit to All Saints. She was curious and asked some questions, but ultimately unimpressed. Eventually, she would become deeply resistant to our being received into the Orthodox Church.
In the autumn of that year, I began my doctoral program in philosophy at Loyola University in Chicago. During that semester my own sense of vocation and the status of the Episcopal Church became clear to me. On Christmas Eve, I prayed and wrote a list of issues I had with the Episcopal Church. After two weeks of reflection and further prayer, I decided to stop the process of discernment to a vocation to the priesthood. On the Feast of Epiphany 2002, I emailed my priest, and later contacted the bishop and my parish discernment committee. When I told Anna, there was visible and verbal relief. She summed it up in her response to me: “Good.”
A week later I returned again to All Saints. I had lunch with Fr. Patrick and Khouria Denise. He answered a lot of my questions and gave me a prayer rule. I continued to study further about Orthodoxy. But the toll of the previous year and a half worked itself out in me. I soon went into a state of numbness and apathy. I stopped attending worship altogether. I rarely prayed. I felt stuck between. I had given up on the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism. There was no evangelical church that appealed to me. And with Anna’s growing resistance to a new church journey, let alone the strange world of Orthodoxy. So for six months, from January to June 2002, I was nowhere in terms of a church home. Orthodoxy still beckoned, and I knew my heart lay there. But I was out in the wilderness. Something eventually would have to give way.
And as you may suppose, it started with repentance.
3. Orthodox Encounters June 2002 to September 2003
On 9 June 2002, I returned to All Saints Orthodox Church after a six-month absence.
The week before, through a serendipitous reference in my reading to the passage in Ephesians 5 on the relations of husbands and wives, I contemplated my responsibilities as a husband. According to the Scriptures, and my own conscience, I came up far short. Especially in the critical role of my obligations of leadership in my home in matters of faith.
As I’ve described, my first reactions to the new realities confronting me in the Episcopal Church and in seminary, as the 90s drew to a close and the new century and millennium began, were largely ones of anger and repulsion. I was angry that the church I thought I had joined had, in effect, ceased to exist more than two and a half decades before. I was angry that I had not seen the truth when I was being confirmed, and angry at those changes which had manifested themselves after my confirmation. I was also repulsed by the approval of immoral behavior and the ever-growing influence of heresy in the communications of the church, heresy which was never seriously or prominently addressed, let alone disciplined. No bishops or priests were brought up on presentments for preaching that which contradicted the explicit Faith of the historic Church. It seemed it was more important to uphold institutional unity, to hold on to property and endowments, to earn the esteem and approval of those outside the Church, than it was to stand firm in the Faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Clearly, then, my turn to Orthodoxy at first was more about greener pastures than about embracing Orthodoxy for what it was. But from the time I acquired an Orthodox prayerbook and the Septuagint psalter in January 2001, I began to relate to Orthodoxy on a deeper, more serious level. My exploration of the life and doctrine of the Church began to lay a solid foundation for change, so that by the time June 2002 came ‘round, I was in a state in which I no longer evaluated the Orthodox Church on my terms and preferences. I was now prepared to listen to the Orthodox Church and, importantly, to begin to allow Orthodoxy to evaluate me.
It was fitting, then, that the Sunday of my return, 9 June, was the Sunday of the Blind Man (the Gospel reading being John 9:1-38), and that Epistle reading was Acts 16:16-34, and the conversion of the Philippian jailer. This was my first of a handful of “St. Anthony moments.” As you remember, St. Anthony had gone to worship, heard the Gospel text to sell all he had and give it to the poor, and soon went into the desert to pray and wage spiritual warfare. Though certainly with more humble implications, nonetheless, the significance of these passages were not lost on me. Clearly I was blind, and in need of the illumination of God’s Spirit. But I took the promise of St. Paul to the Philippian jailer as my own: “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house.” As completely unrealizable as it seemed, I began to hope that one day I and my entire household would be Orthodox.
For I had come to believe, though I did not yet understand, that the Orthodox Church is the Church of the New Testament. If this were true, then not only by virtue of my growing up in the Stone-Campbell/Restoration Movement churches, but also on its own terms, I needed to lead my family into that Church, and to do so by way of example.
In July 2002, I began six months of reading and study, reflection and writing on the key questions to which I needed answers. Answers that would address not merely intellectual matters, but the issues of the life of faith. This project, though it did not begin quite so large as it ended, was much less about an academic study of, say, whether or not the Church had always believed that the elements of bread and wine become the Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, but rather, if this is indeed the case, what am I then to do about it? So, what began as an anticipated handful of questions I might answer in a paper grew to eight related essays (three on the nature of the Church alone), totaling some ninety-two typescript pages and more than thirty thousand nine hundred words. I started the first essay on 31 July, and began the last essay on Christmas Eve (finishing it the day after New Year’s Day).
The first two essays were intended to clear the ground and note the boundaries. In the first I noted that the competing and contradictory beliefs of the various Protestant bodies pointed out both the weaknesses of the Protestant paradigm and that the Truth had to be there amidst all the antagonistic notions. In the second essay I established the Protestant problem: that the New Testament clearly points to the visible unity of the Church, and that Protestantism has not only created more than twenty thousand schisms, but continues to add to them each week.
From there I could only resort to one sure thing: the Tradition of the Church, so the third essay highlighted how it is that the Tradition is essential to Christian belief. It is that Tradition which reveals both the antiquity of the office of the Bishop, but also underscores the New Testament teaching that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ in the Church’s Eucharist. The last three essays deal with the reality of the unity of the Church, that the Church is both the Body of Christ and by that, then, is the locus of our salvation, and finally that the criteria of the true Church would have to be both historical and doctrinal continuity with the Church of the New Testament.
But the months from July to the Christmas season were not merely about study, however, “real life” that study was. In mid-July, Anna and I worshipped for the first time at Northside Christian Church. This was a Disciples of Christ congregation just about a mile from our home. The Disciples churches had the same historical pedigree of the churches of which Anna and I had been members (and had served as ministers early on in our marriage), so there was some familiar ground. Plus Northside had one of the most well-done contemporary praise-band worship services I’d ever seen done, which was a key factor for my wife.
Anna and I worshipped there a few times a month for a couple of months. Both of us met with the husband-wife ministry team, and I myself met with the pastor a couple of times. But though one would think we had found our “compromise parish,” early on even Anna had misgivings. In our first meeting with the pastors over lunch, we asked some direct questions about doctrine, morality and church discipline. We did not receive direct answers. And the answers that were finally forthcoming seemed to us to display a willingness to dilute the tougher teachings of the Church for the sake of something like “church growth.”
By the first of October, the congregation had relocated to a rented movie theater in Bucktown and changed its name. We went once after the move, but the atmosphere felt to us less like worship and more like the sort of spectating one does in a theater, complete with snacks, soda and cupholders in the arms of the theater seats. We did not return. I took the move as a sign from God that this was not what he wanted for us.
The first Sunday in October, as it would turn out, was my last visit to the Divine Liturgy at All Saints until December. The following weekend I went to the Benedictine monastery of St. Gregory’s Abbey, in Three Rivers, Michigan. It was to be, in a most significant way, an unlooked-for transformation.
I arrived a few minutes late for dinner at St. Gregory’s Abbey on that October Friday, the eleventh. Arriving late is not a good thing at a monastery, but being Benedictines they were unfailingly gracious and served me a heaping plate of food nonetheless. St. Gregory’s observes the canonical offices of Matins (4:00 am), Lauds, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. So after a brief opportunity to unload the car and unpack, it was time to head to the abbey church for Compline. I wandered around a bit in the monastery library, then headed back to the guest house, did some journaling and headed to bed.
The weekend was the wonderful Benedictine dance between work, study and prayer, though as a guest I was left to my own devices during the community work hours. I did some reading and journaling between offices. I ate with the brothers and other guests. I rested.
I came to the abbey with no real agenda, other than knowing I needed to go there. I’d been to the abbey on a couple of other occasions (though the last visit had been four years before), each visit of which was an intense time of prayerful consideration of a vocation and the seeking of some confirmation of its certainty. On the drive over to the abbey this time, however, I simply told God I had no agenda other than the one he had for me. If “nothing happened” that would be fine. I would just trust in him.
But as it turned out, one of the books I’d checked out was a service of the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos. I had not developed any sort of “devotion to the Virgin,” and, indeed, other than the prescribed instances in the Divine Liturgy and the service of Morning Prayers, I’d never really sought her intercessions. But I remembered that in the West, Saturdays were uniquely devoted to the Blessed Virgin, so, on Saturday afternoon, I developed the idea that in the meditation time after Compline, I would pray the Akathist hymn in one of the chapels running along the side of the monastery church.
It was an experience of prayer that was more about the distraction of standing and attending to only about ten percent of the words than about anything else. From the paradigm of spiritual experience I’d gained from my heritage churches, the prayer was a “non-experience.” No feelings of piety. No mystical flights of fancy. But, strangely enough, it was a prayer about which I suddenly wanted to develop a routine of praying.
The weekend ended Sunday after lunch. I headed back to the abbey church to spend a few moments in prayer in one of the side chapels. I prayed, as I’d done from several months, for the unity of our family and home in spiritual matters. I began to pray for Anna. Then, quite unexpectedly, I was overcome with sobbing. I had a glimpse of my own unworthiness before God, of my sinfulness. In the prayers that came forth, I asked the intercessions of the Theotokos with regard to our family and the Orthodox Church.
As quickly as it came on me, the crying left. I prayed a bit longer and then left. Soon I headed home.
Through the next month at home life was just as it had always been. I was doing more serious reading in Orthodoxy, particularly Panayiotis Nellas’ Deification in Christ. In my daily prayers, however, I soon took on the practice of asking the intercessions of the Theotokos for me and my household. I began specifically to ask the prayers of our Lady for my wife.
On Monday, 2 December, my wife went to the doctor. She’d been feeling ill for a week and just wasn’t shaking it. I touched base briefly with Anna prior to my evening class. Then, class over, I headed home in a Chicago snowfall. But oddly enough, for me, my thoughts were not on class or some theological idea, which was usually the case. I often reflected on such things on the walk home. No, this night, my thoughts were daydreams about the future, and the children we hoped to have and raise.
Which was interesting, because I’m not, by any stretch of the imagination, an “intuitive” person. But when I walked in the door, Anna had news for me.
Anna was pregnant. This was joyous news. Though at first, the transition in our lives from ten years of family as couple to family as mommy, daddy and child, was emotionally tough, especially for Anna. She was smack-dab in the midst of rapid career development, and looking forward to continuing her education either in writing or in studying children’s literature. Now she was a momma. For my part, all I could see at first was the economic need to suspend, if not cancel altogether, the doctoral program I was so close to finishing.
As it turned out, those first misgivings, natural as they were, soon gave way to undiluted joy, acceptance and anticipation. Sofie took us out of ourselves and gave us a greater love to share.
I got the news on Monday, 2 December. The next Sunday I was back at All Saints to offer my thanksgiving to God, and to seek his strength. It was clear to me, almost from the beginning, that Sofie’s advent was in part, an answer to the prayers of the Theotokos for us which I’d been praying now for a couple of months. At first I had to take this somewhat on faith, though the conviction was strong. But as the months have unfolded since then, events have seemed to bear this out.
By the end of the month, I was finalizing the several essays I’d been working on about Orthodoxy. I also read Metropolitan John Zizioulas’ Being as Communion. This, in conjunction with Nellas’ Deification in Christ, served to further fundamentally shape my understanding of the Church, the Trinity and salvation. These books drove me back to the New Testament to confirm and reason out what it was they were saying. I began to understand that the individualistic faith I’d been reared with and trained in as an adult was antithetical to the prima facie text of the New Testament. If I gained nothing else, I learned that almost always, when Paul uses “you” in his letters to the churches, it is collective. We are saved together. And that has far-reaching implications.
While all this was going on, about the middle of the month, I had my second “St. Anthony moment.” That is to say, while worshipping and hearing the lections for the day, the word of God hit me right between the eyes. In June I was the blind man whose sight had been restored and the jailer who had received the promise of the salvation of his entire household. This time, God was much more direct. The Gospel reading was from Luke 14:16-24, the parable of the wedding supper and those who refuse to come.
Advent that year was extremely meaningful. I came to sense more deeply what it meant for the Lord to take on Mary’s humanity, to become a man and live as one of us. I was joyous at the thought of becoming a new father. Anna was much more ambivalent, and this, augmented by the newly surging hormones of pregnancy, made for an emotional time as she worked through her anxieties and embraced her joys.
I did not return to All Saints till the following February. I have, to this point, lingered quite a bit over the half-year period from June to December 2002. This has mainly been because this was perhaps the most important several months yet in my inquiry about Orthodoxy. During this time I had settled important questions in my mind regarding the biblical nature of the place of Tradition, of bishops, of the transformation of the Eucharistic elements, and of the implications in terms of salvation and sanctification, of visible unity and historic continuity, resulting from the Church’s being the Body of Christ. I had “discovered” the reality and aid of the intercessions of the saints on our behalf, particularly of the Theotokos. And I had become a father. Mind, worship, heart and family had been radically re-formed in just over two hundred days.
The living into that reality, however, even now has only barely just begun.
Despite my best efforts to care for my wife’s spiritual needs as well as to heed the very clear call from God to prioritize faith and discipleship, I frequently failed to accomplish much of either. On 9 February 2003, I was back at All Saints again. And once again, I was confronted with another “St. Anthony moment.” This time it was the Matins Gospel, John 21:15-25. Here I was Peter, being asked of Christ, “Do you love me more than these?”
The start of Great Lent, in March 2003, was extremely powerful for me. I participated in my first Forgiveness Vespers. I prayed, for the first time, the Great Canon of St. Andrew. And I experienced my first Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. In fact, it was at that last that I also for the first time had both the understanding as well as something of the experience of the presence of the saints with us as we worship God.
But with Anna’s brother, Delane, in the hospital, and our visits there to see him, with the demands of being a full-time student, teaching two classes at two different colleges, and working half-time, the rest of Lent quickly passed. I was busy, distracted and torn in many directions.
Pascha came, and one other first was added to my experience of Orthodoxy. Cognizant of my Lenten failures, when St. John Chrysostom called even me, one who had not kept the fast, who had not lived faithfully, to the Feast, I nearly wept. It was, by far, the single most powerful worship service in which I had ever participated.
The summer of 2003 was marked by one thing and one thing alone: the anticipation of Sofie’s birth, followed by its fulfillment. Of course, I still attended All Saints, this time more faithfully and regularly than before. Anna’s protests were much more muted and infrequent. Our discussions about Orthodoxy, and All Saints, were much more open and honest. They were discussions, rather than the repetition of entrenched positions.
Though unsurprising, the actions of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention–the ratification of the election of a divorced man in an open homosexual relationship, and the official permission to conduct same sex unions–brought into sharp focus the distinctions which the Orthodox Church offered. This was especially vital in relation to not merely the Episcopal Church but nearly all of the churches about which we had inquired or had visited.
Finally, 14 August came and Sofie was born. It was among the two or three most transformative experiences I’d been through in my entire life. Anna graciously acquiesced to my request for Father Patrick to come and say a prayer of blessing over Sofie. So, the next day, before Sofie was a full twenty-four hours old, Father Patrick and Khouria Denise arrived, with a beautiful gift of a pink dress, to pray over Sofie and share our joy.
The Saturday before my birthday, the three of us had been running errands and were on the way back home. Out of nowhere, and a propos of nothing, Anna said, “We should make All Saints our regular church home.” I voiced a humble agreement, but wisely refrained from saying much else.
Sunday morning came, my thirty-sixth birthday, and, silently rejoicing within, the Healy’s got ready for worship, piled into the car and headed to All Saints.
I wrote about it at the time:
Today, my wife, Anna, and our daughter, Sofie, worshipped together at All Saints Orthodox Church. For Anna, it was her third worship at All Saints (her fourth Divine Liturgy all told). For Sofie, it was the first time she worshipped with her mommy and daddy at the Divine Liturgy. It was positively the best birthday present I could have ever received.
Sofie slept peacefully through the first part of the service. Then during the Litany prayed with the Procession of the Bread and the Wine, she took part in the blessing of the children. It is the custom at All Saints for Father Patrick to place the Chalice over the heads of all the children, one at a time, and pray “May the Lord our God remember you in His Kingdom, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Sofie woke then, as we took her slumbering self from the car seat, so that I could hold her for Father Patrick’s blessing. Anna then took her down to the nursery to feed her. Sofie continued to sleep through the rest of the service.
Then, when the parishioners went to commune the Holy Gifts, I took Sofie from Anna and headed forward to receive the blessing. It wasn’t until just before I stood in front of Father Patrick that I realized Anna had slipped
out of the pew and followed behind me. Anna’s never done that before. So there we were, a family, each one at a time receiving from God’s priest the merciful blessings of our Lord.
From that first Sunday worshipping together as a family, Anna and I began to settle, as best we could, into the parish life of All Saints, though we were still inquirers, and no immediate intentions as a family to become Orthodox. It is a great testimony to the parish itself that we were never made to feel second-class, or somehow less Christian than anyone else there. We could not, obviously, partake of the Sacraments, but we joined in as many of the services as we could. The young women and mothers of the parish enfolded Anna into their circle and became a very important support group.
The next three years would be a mix of drawing ever closer to Orthodoxy as well as experiencing some of the most severe forms of testing we could have imagined.
4. Encountering Living Orthodoxy, September 2003 to the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007)
Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) of Platina
Three days after our first Sunday worshiping at All Saints together as a family, I received in the mail, my copy of the revised and updated Father Seraphim Rose biography: Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, by Hieromonk Damascene and published by St. Herman Press. I had already, by then, read twelve books written by, translated by or about Hieromonk Seraphim: The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (January 03), [Tr] St. Seraphim of Sarov (Little Russian Philokalia v. 1) (January 03), Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (February 03), [Tr] Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers (February 03), [Tr] On the Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God (February 03), [Bio] Not of This World (October 02-March 03), [Tr] The Apocalypse in the Ancient Teachings of Christianity (May 03), Nihilism (July 03), [Tr] Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (July 03), [Tr] First-Created Man (July 03), Genesis, Creation and Early Man (August 03), and [Tr] Guidance Toward the Spiritual Life (September 03). Over the next few months I read the new biography ([Bio] Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works [September-December 03]), as well as a book of his letters (Letters from Father Seraphim [December 03]).
As I have indicated elsewhere, Father Seraphim has become a significant influence in the shaping of my faith and the practice of prayer and disciplines which I pursue. Indeed, about a year after I set my face toward Orthodoxy, I had come under the conviction that Father Seraphim had become one of my patron saints, in ways strikingly like St. Benedict had done some dozen or so years earlier. As the Lord has mercy, and my priest blesses, I will take the name Benedict Seraphim at my chrismation.
What is it about Father Seraphim that so strikes me and serves as an inspiration to my faith and life? It is difficult to articulate. I have, every years since the autumn of 2002, read his biography, either in the first version (Not of This World) or in the current edition. And every year, I devour it. It is not something I intentionally set out to do: Saying to myself, “Oh, it’s nearing September, I should begin reading Father Seraphim’s biography.” And yet, like some internal magnet, as his feast day approaches, I begin to turn my attention toward reading his life. This is not true of all of his writings. While I have read most of what has been published, and several of those items twice or more, I have not come back to everything again and again. But the account of his life speaks to me again and again.
There are superficial similarities between us: he was, in his academic career, a student of ancient philosophy (in his case Chinese philosophy, whereas my focus is Hellenistic). He chafed under the superficiality and vacuity that is ubiquitous within academia. He experienced the pain of the schism between the mind and the heart. In a much lesser way, I, too, have known these things. And I think, then, what he demonstrates to me is the integration of one’s person that Orthodoxy makes possible in a way I have found nowhere else. His were no superhuman ascetic feats. It was enough for him to simply follow the way of the life of the Church, fasting when she requires a fast, and fasting according to the guidelines she provides; praying as she requires us to pray, with the prayers she has given to us; giving to the poor as one poor himself. His life, though a monastic one, was an ordinary monastic one. And it speaks, in that ordinariness, of the normalcy that Orthodoxy establishes for a soul. Surely Fr Seraphim was a thinker and a writer. And he certainly has had a very wide, multi-national influence. But his heart’s desire was simply to struggle, to work and to pray, in one place, his beloved mountain. And it is his influence, coupled with St. Benedict’s moderate Rule for laymen, which has probably shaped me the most, outside the worship of the Orthodox Church.
But Father Seraphim’s influence was a necessary foundation for the significant personal developments in my understanding, and more importantly practice, of the Orthodox Faith and way of life. In spring and summer 2005 I would experience some blessed formation and change in these things.
St. Maximus and Soteriology
Having completed the Father Seraphim biography and the collection of his letters over the Christmas 2003 holidays, 2004 opened with some light popular reading, and soon my family’s first solid exposure to Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. I worshiped at my first Bridegroom Matins service, and experienced some of the most profound and moving services during the Triduum. Although I had attended my first Pascha service the previous year, 2004 was the first for us as a family. It was an amazing and wonderful experience.
Spring gave way to summer, and in June of that year we totaled our car. But the Lord watched over us, and kept us all safe. One of our parishioners, Patricia, helped us get back home that day. A generous gift, our insurance settlement, and a most blessed timing, meant we were without a vehicle of our own only for a couple of brief weeks. We were able to get a good, safe and dependable vehicle.
The rest of 2004 was pretty mundane, in terms of Orthodoxy and our home. Which was good for us. We began to see how normal life as an Orthodox looked, and I was given yet more time to ensure that my conversion to Orthodoxy was genuine and without romanticism.
The year 2005, however, brought for me a new set of important theological developments. Perhaps one of the best things, in terms of my growth in understanding of Orthodoxy, to come out of the beginning of the year, was a post on the Church’s Tradition. That led to a series of exchanges between me and Kevin on the Tradition of the Church (the links to all of the posts are summarized in this final post). And that set of exchanges led then to a later series of posts, which, after the exchanges got underway, I called a soteriology diablog between various interblogolocutors.
The reason why this exchange was so transformative for me is that it led, through a personal recommendation from Perry Robinson, to a reading of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in Saint Maximos the Confessor, as well as Farrell’s translation of St. Maximos’ dialogue with Pyrrhus. In fact, I was so taken with Farrell’s book, I read it twice, once in April and then again in September.
It was the examination of the gnomic will of the human person that really opened up soteriology for me. I’d been working on an incomplete seminar paper on free will, and so this issue was fresh in my mind. Too, I was wrestling with the tension between “working out your salvation” and “saved by grace.” This was not a new struggle. I had faced it in my fourth year of Bible college. I had been raised with an almost semi-Pelagian understanding of salvation, that at times bordered on legalism. In college I grew to better understand grace. But this led, for a time, to a bit of antinomianism. The pendulum swung back to a more moderate spot, but encountering the Orthodox notion of struggle reawakened the tension and how to understand it.
St. Maximos gave me a mechanism and a schema by which I could understand the libertarian nature of human free will, and its ascetical nature of struggle and virtue. (Not all libertarian accounts of free will understand, let alone try to incorporate, the askesis of struggle and virtue in the deliberative will—Robert Kane is a notable and welcome exception.) It was that conceptual change that helped me to better grasp the Orthodox understanding of salvation, and St. Paul’s admonition to “work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
It became clear to me that it was the habitual action, the continuous struggle, the life of the repentance that was, indeed, the point. It wasn’t a juridical declaration from God on high. It was, rather, the union with God that God fashions from our freely willed ascetical struggles in choosing that union, that love. It wasn’t that my struggle somehow earned God’s favor. It wasn’t that my efforts somehow merited grace. It was, rather, that in the struggle, in the effort, God in love freely energizes in me the infinite goods of his grace to not only do but become by his grace that which he is by his nature.
Gone was my semi-Pelagian, Restoration Movement understanding. It now made sense to me how it is that the Orthodox Church is, in some ways, the most ascetically demanding of Christian bodies, and the one place where I have come to know grace, to come finally to realize that God is, indeed, the lover of mankind. Not a God of wrath and judgment, but the God who is love, and who in love, extends his divine goods toward me that I might not merely know about him, but know him in my very being, insofar as my being can contain the tiniest sliver of that sort of knowing.
And once this development had worked its wonder and grace in me, the second major development was on its way.
The Summer of True Philosophia
The highlight of the year came at the midpoint of the summer, on 3 July: Delaina’s birth. Born on the birthday of her late uncle, Delane, her birth was a truly wonderful experience. Anna had chosen to have a drug-free birth and a water birth. The experience was, for me, amazing, blessed, joyous, wonderful and soul-shaking all at once. It was unencumbered by all but the most essential medical technology: just my wife and our baby girl working together. (Oh, sure, the midwife was there to help things along!) Sofie’s birth was just as amazingly wonderful and beautiful in its own particular way, but I definitely prefer the more “natural” way in which Delaina’s birth happened.
I attempted to make sure that I had completed the four incomplete papers and one incomplete master’s thesis by late June (Delaina’s original birth date), and was successful in that. Along the way, as a reward to myself, I engaged in some “free” reading, and so in May I checked out a couple of works of Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy? These two works could not have come at a better time, following as they did, so closely on the heals of my encounter with St. Maximos and the transformation of my understanding of Orthodox soteriology, that mix of demanding ascetical struggle with a more robust understanding of grace than any other Christian group I’ve encountered.
The encounter with Hadot led, beginning on the first of June and running through almost the middle of July, to a series of reflections on true philosophia. That is to say, the understanding of philosophy not as an academic discipline but as a way of living.
I had been heading in this direction for a couple of months prior to my Hadot reading. I had sat in on a philosophy department colloquium in which one of my revered professors, Dr. Peperzak, lamented the disconnect of the academic study of philosophy with a whole way of living. At the time I was both attracted to Dr. Peperzak’s protest but also explained it away as that “social justice” thing, and to a “European activist” viewpoint. But it nonetheless stayed with me, stuck in my craw as it were, waiting for Hadot to irritate it a bit more, and to lead to some further reflection.
Just as St. Maximos’ conception of the gnomic will opened to me a better understanding of Orthodox askesis and the volitional struggle for virtue, encompassed by and suffused with an energetic divine grace, philosophia, or a way of life, opened to me an understanding of Christian Faith as just that: a peculiar way of living.
As a Protestant, when I encountered Orthodoxy, I did what any good Protestant does: I read about it and studied it. This is how a Protestant enacts his faith: through intellectual study. After all, in the churches in which I was raised, when we wanted to find answers for our questions, we studied the Bible. The Bible was, for us a textbook of sorts, a treasure trove of information from God’s mind to ours, which we were to mine for information on what to believe, on what ethical principles to hold–but rarely, if ever, on how to live the sort of life Christ lives. So, for the first two years of my investigations of Orthodoxy, I read and studied. Oh, sure, I went to a handful of Divine Liturgies, and I adopted an Orthodox prayerbook and Psalter. But nearly all my engagement with Orthodoxy was in the head. Even when I first decided to worship regularly at All Saints, I spent the next six months studying and writing essays related to the questions in my mind regarding the Orthodox Faith. None of those essays dealt with worship or the Orthodox way of living.
But when encountering philosophia and its distinction from philosophy, and especially noting how some of the Church Fathers, such as St. Justin the Philosopher, characterized Christianity as “true philosophia,” that really opened up to me that Orthodoxy is not just a set of doctrines, as was my Protestant experience, but a way of life. A way of life characterized by the ascetical struggle of the libertarian, gnomic will toward the establishment of virtue in the soul, always and ever energized by divine grace in such a struggle.
These were the keys that opened up for me what Orthodoxy was all about. It wasn’t just a neater, more “high liturgy” way of doing Sunday worship. It wasn’t just a greater devotion and connection to the historic Church. It wasn’t “Catholicism without the Pope.” It was, rather, a very real and peculiar way of living, a way of living that has been held and maintained in unbroken continuity and consistency with the Church of the Apostles. It was, in fact, not just a different way of living. It was, to be brutally blunt: life itself.
From that life sprang genuine, cosmic worship. From that life sprang an organic connection to the historic Church. From that life sprang Truth, and thus true doctrine, dogma and discipline. From that life sprang a particular way of living. But beneath it all was life: the life of Christ as given to his Church by way of his hypostatic union with his Body. The sacraments are not “genuine” simply because one can trace a tactile succession of the episcopate. The Orthodox Mysteries are “genuine” because they spring from the life of Christ himself, the life he gives to his Body the Church, and which the Church, then, may, as a living organism, give to the various members which that Body is.
I do not think I could have come to this realization, if I had not gone through these two fundamental and seismic shifts in my thinking during 2005. They were, quite literally for me, the keys of comprehension unlocking to me the truth and beauty and goodness and grace that is the Orthodox Church, Christ’s Body.
But this, of course, was just the beginning. The testing of the genuineness of this renewal of mind was to come.
A Year of Testing and Struggle
Last year, 2006, was the most difficult year I’ve ever faced. We began the year with significant financial struggles. By God’s grace those had eased by mid-year. As part of those struggles, we were without a home of our own for about two and a half months; and as a result of that state, my family and I were separated from one another during that time, while I continued to work and earn an income, staying with friends, and my wife and daughters stayed with her family in Oklahoma. And, finally, as the year wound down with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, I experienced the severe turmoil with my mom and sisters, and we lost our baby in utero, and as a result of the miscarriage, I almost lost my wife. I can’t imagine very many scenarios that would have been so difficult as this past year was for us.
Although our struggles began prior to Lent, they really began to come to a point as Lent was getting underway. That, coupled with my wife and daughters temporarily relocating to Oklahoma in April, made for a Lenten desolation I had never before known. While things eventually improved, including my landing of a job that is both challenging and rewarding—though it is not the academic job I envisioned myself in about this point in my life—new challenges ended the year. As with all sorts of things like these, some of our struggles were a mix of the consequences of our own failings, as well as the happenstance of hurtful things that happen in a fallen world. Others, of course, were simply the sorrow that a bent and twisted world brings as we all await the cosmic redemption.
While I might say that I learned a deeper faith from enduring these things, I’m not certain my life has the sort of faithful constancy to back such a claim. I did learn something about the seldom-early, never-late merciful compassion of God, and was once again given the indisputable evidence that he is a God to be trusted. But again, these things are not for me to teach, inconstant as I am. And with regard to the pain of the struggle of those months, that is such an inwardly private thing, I’m not sure it can be communicated without stumbling over one’s pride. So it is best to pass over much of the year in silence.
Finally, into the Catechumenate
One thing that did happen this past autumn was our second “false-start” into the catechumenate. We’d had our first such “false-start” a year before in the autumn of 2005. During Autumn 2005, Anna and I had gone to meet a friend for dinner up in Guerney, and on the way home, with the girls asleep in the car as we drove down the interstate, I broached the subject of my desire to become Orthodox, but also affirmed my desire to do so as a family. I tried to express my willingness to wait a bit longer, but at the same time tried to communicate that I did not feel I could wait for forever. Surprisingly, Anna indicated that she would be willing to become Orthodox. We talked to Father Pat, a few weeks later, but as it turned out, we didn’t then make it into the catechumenate. Looking back, last year would doubtless have been a difficult year to meaningfully grow through the catechumenate amid such significant life traumas.
A similar scenario played itself out this past autumn. Our life circumstances had begun to improve on many fronts, and I expressed again my desire to be Orthodox and my desire that we do so as a family. Anna reiterated her own
willingness to become Orthodox, and once again, we tried to get a meeting with Father. This time Father’s travel schedule and our own holiday travels failed to mesh. Then the miscarriage focused our energies and resources. But we renewed our query shortly after the new year began and life had once again settled down for us.
This time, we finally were blessed to enter the catechumenate. Though, I must admit, it did not unfold in quite the way I though it would. Whereas I thought we’d have a face-to-face with Father Pat, and that we would formally enter the catechumenate in time for the start of Great and Holy Lent, instead, it was a lot less formal, even sort of anti-climactic. On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, after Lent had been underway for a week, and after trying without success for a couple of weeks to get with Father, we finally tried to get with Father Pat immediately after services (he was going out of town over the following days), but he was busy and deferred us via a phone call later toward mid-afternoon. Father and Anna spoke for less than fifteen minutes on the phone, and that was that. We were catechumens.
As it happened, our “enrollment” in the cathechumenate was a portent of the low-key way the catechumenate period would unfold for us.
5. The Catechumentate, the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007) to Pentecost Sunday (27 May 2007)
Our catechumenate was fairly informal. First of all, as I understand it, the catechumenate at All Saints itself is itself fairly informal: one worships and attends Sunday School, and works out the rest of the details with the priest. Some catechumens may need more reading, others less. Others may need one or another pastoral counsel. Everyone is a unique person. The catechumenate is not a production line. Another part of the reason, perhaps, that our cathechumenate was a lot less formalized is that we’d been coming to All Saints as a family for more than three years already (and I’d been coming regularly for about four and a half years). If I recall correctly, our archdiocesan policy is that someone worship for a year in an Orthodox parish before being accepted into the Church. We’d definitely met that standard.
Even so, the beginning plan, remarkably, was that our household would enter the Church at Pascha. But Anna had made plans to visit her family during Lent, and so would miss about two weeks of the Fast. Father unhesitatingly decided to have us wait till Pentecost. And even that date was not set in stone at first. Father was careful to articulate that there was no pressure in this—Orthodox, after all, believe in libertarian free will—and wanted to ensure Anna herself felt no such pressure, but could focus on preparing for becoming Orthodox.
Our preparations, Anna’s and mine, were, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite different. While I set myself, with Father’s blessing, to read St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ The Life in Christ and to really set my mind and heart on what it meant to be Orthodox, Anna made certain of the preparations of the girls’ baptismal gowns, and looked for white dresses for them to wear. While I was ruminating over at last being able to receive the Sacraments after so long, Anna was thinking about saints’ names. I don’t mean to stereotype and it certainly wasn’t quite so hard and fast a distinction as presented here, but I was still entering Orthodoxy with my mind and working on the idea of the thing, while Anna was pursuing it with, well, a momma’s heart. She is more like Our Lady in that respect than me. I was lost in the clouds, while Anna was making sure the girls would have something nice to wear after their baptisms.
My patrons, of course, have been settled for me long ago: St. Benedict of Nursia (14 March) and Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina (2 September). Even our family patron made himself known about three years ago: St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (2 July). As we prepared for the baptisms of our daughters and Anna’s and my chrismations, we also settled on patron saints for Anna and the girls. Anna, unsurprisingly, given her love of things French, chose St. Genevieve of Paris (3 January). Given our Irish heritage, I thought St. Brigid of Kildare (1 February) would be a good patron for Delaina, and Anna agreed. Sofie, on the other hand, rather characteristically chose her own. We had made our decisions for Anna and Delaina based in part of a children’s book of saints that we had purchased at Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas, during our last Thanksgiving trip home. As we flipped through the book, the icon-like pictures provided colorful images of the saints, and Sofie pointed determinedly at the one of St. Nina, Enlightener of Georgia (14 January): “That one!” she said. And remarked on the cross in St. Nina’s hand. “She has a cross.” And so it was settled.
The preparations I’d given to the day earlier in the week were not what I had imagined they would be, nor what I intended them to be, but they were the best preparations I could do. I had a good long talk with our Father Deacon Theophan Friday afternoon over “pints” at The Celtic Knot. That was a good time. I spent way too much time struggling over trying to get past the anticipation of the experience and not enough time focusing on the Persons at the center of the experience. But thank God, that was finally, in his mercy, conquered through much prayer and wrestling.
Making confession was different. I’d confessed before as an Anglican–rather regularly–and as an Anglican made a life confession. But the life confession I gave Saturday was, well, not what I imagined it would be. Father Patrick helped to focus by some pointed and distinguishing questions. But, again, not as I’d thought it would be. Unlike much of my previous spiritual life, I had to learn to trust the Church, in the wise counsel of her man, my parish priest, and had to continue my lessons in grace versus human merit. Clearly, my previous Restoration Movement Christian upbringing was having significant influence.
Unfortunately, our daughters were very anxious about their baptisms. And though we had practiced several times in the tub in the weeks prior to Pentecost, when we did a little practice with Father Patrick after Vespers the night before, the girls were anxious and crying. Father wisely and rightly I think called off the girls’ baptisms for later when they were less anxious and the experience would not be a traumatic one for them.
6. Into the Church, Our Chrismations on Pentecost Sunday (27 May 2007)
And then the day came: Pentecost, and our chrismations. The service for our chrismations started pretty much the second we walked in the door. We weren’t late, though we were not as early as I would have liked to have been on that day of all days, but we walked in the door and there was Father standing at the top of the stairs leading into the nave. We walked up the stairs and he said, “Take off your shoes and socks,” and away we went.
The chrismation ceremony was a bit of a blur. I’d read over the service in Hapgood a handful of times, but there I was in the midst of the rite and simply standing in the moment. We renounced some heresies, I know. We expressed our desire to be in the Church. We said the Creed. We vowed life obedience. We kissed the Gospel and the Cross.
The moment of absolution was upon me before I knew it. But you can rest assured that at that point my mind was focused. The declaration of forgiveness brought tears to my eyes. But not in an overly emotional sort of way.
The anointing took enough time that I could slow down and take things in. We were anointed on forehead, eyes, nose, lips, ear lobes, chest (or, rather, where neck and collarbone meet), hands (palms and top of the hand), and feet–signifying, if I understand correctly, the mind, the heart, the will and all the senses.
At the end of the rite we were introduced as the newest members of the holy Orthodox Church. There was polite clapping and then Father explained why it was that our daughters were not going to be baptized that day. Then the Divine Liturgy proper was under way and I was praying in the Liturgy for the first time as an Orthodox Christian.
For me at least, right or wrong, having been without the Eucharist for five years, the rest of the service was focused on being ready to receive God into my body and soul in my first Holy Communion. Due both to my new understanding of Communion and my experience of it, I will not say much about the Communion, but, rather, simply draw a veil over it. But I will say this: For the first time in my life I understand why all but the faithful were, historically, dismissed at the beginning of the transition to the Communion rite.
I know there are some misgivings about the use of the terms “conversion” and “converts” with reference to the experience of us who come to Orthodoxy as already in some sense Christian. Believe me, this side of chrismation, with the oil still wet, as it were, I see no problem with those terms whatsoever. I do have a sense of being “newly illumined.” The day’s Liturgy and many aspects of it, particularly Holy Communion, just really make sense to me in ways they did not before.
I do not speak of conversion in the popular evangelical sense where this is some marked point of transition with with some strong emotive content, or certain ecstatic experiences. I know I certainly had none of that. There were some tears, to be sure. There was a greater sense of reverence and holy dread than I’ve ever known before as I approached the Chalice. But there was no “ecstasy,” no “warm fuzzies,” no swirling emotions at all, really. But there was a very real sense of finally “getting it” about certain aspects of the Orthodox Faith and life. Things clicked because of the experience. And I have a sense that my troublesome mind-heart split, my “life of the mind” reclusion, is beginning now to be healed.
There is a greater sense of belonging, as well. This, of course, was bound to happen. But it’s not a though now we’re on the parish social committee’s speed dial (do we have a parish social committee?). Rather, it is a sense of really and truly belonging to the same Church, now, that all our parish friends belong to. All Saints has never ever done anything but made us feel most welcome and included, from the moment I first stepped through the doors, and from the moment Anna visited on the Mother’s Day when she was still pregnant with Sofie, we have felt nothing but welcome. And even, to some degree, part of a family. But that sense became even stronger after our chrismations. More to the point, these patron saints who have been praying for me–well, now I am part of their Church, part of the Body, and a la John 17, I am now united to them in a way I have not been before. As I have invoked their prayers this side of the chrism, that kinship has been felt most strongly.
But one of the sweetest aspects of this unity is that between Anna and I. Anna and I have always had fundamental and deep agreement on the most central and basic questions of the Faith. But even though when she and I met we were both Restoration Movement Christians, she was more strongly identifying with her Nazarene background while I had moved on to Anglicanism. And she has always preferred “contemporary” styles of worship, whereas I wanted Liturgy. But now we are part of the same Church, the same Body of Christ and there is a new unity of Faith and life that God has given us in our common sacrament of chrismation.
All the above notwithstanding, one of the most glaring realities I now understand is my ignorance of Orthodoxy. What I know is not a little, but what I know is so very much less than I will come to know. As I said to Father Pat in answer to his question about how my first two hours as an Orthodox had been, “I have some questions.” He smiled and said, “I’ll bet you do.”
© 2004, 2007 Clifton D. Healy