Friday, April 18, 2008

One Girl's Journey to Orthodoxy

I can feel it coming, the dramatic pause and raised eyebrow at my response to the conversational inquiry about where my family and I attend Church. Especially if this question is a follow-up to the obligatory, “Where did you go to college?’ or “Where did you and your husband meet?” I understand the confusion and try my best to buffer the blow that this Bible College graduate has indeed converted to Orthodox Christianity.

It has been ten years since my husband Troy and I made that life changing decision, taking part in front of our family and friends in the service of Chrismation on a cold winter afternoon in January. This ancient sacrament officially confirmed our desire to join the Eastern Orthodox Church through the receiving of Chrism and the Holy Eucharist. As we stood there, foreheads and feet glistening with fragrant oil, I felt certain that the door I had been knocking on for the past two years had opened at last - to this place, at this moment, by the grace of God.

In 1995, “Orthodoxy” was not the controversial buzzword within evangelical circles that it is today. As far as I knew, no other American Protestant had ever before considered living out his or her faith within the confines of this often-stereotyped cultural backwater. If anyone had told me that within a decade I would be praying with icons, taking part in confession, and witnessing the baptism of all four of my babies, I would have shaken my head and walked away, dismissing my fortuneteller as mentally unstable. I knew that I struggled with being a square peg in a round hole, but I figured I would keep looking within Protestant circles for a pew I could nail my heart to.

I grew up with a firm belief in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. My family attended Church every Sunday morning, and I was a regular attendee of Sunday School, church camp, Vacation Bible School, and high school youth group. All of these experiences validated my conviction that I was loved and known by God. As I entered my teenage years, this faith remained integral to my actions, thoughts, and decisions. Although I wrestled with the common moral dilemmas associated with adolescent independence, I never doubted God’s existence or His role as benevolent creator and savior of the world. I had no interest in church history or theology. The idea that martyrs had been tortured, councils established, and nations split over the structure and essential foundation of the Church and its teachings, was simply not applicable to a seventeen-year-old girl in the throws of soured love, part-time jobs, and college applications. Jesus was my confidant, my frame of reference, and my friend.

After graduation, I enrolled at Moody Bible Institute, a well-known and respected Bible College in downtown Chicago. I didn’t have a real good handle on what I wanted to be, or do, or study, and this small, close to home, conservative institution seemed like a safe place for me to break out on my own. Freshman year, every student takes basically the same core classes. The course names on my schedule sounded harmless enough but I was ill-prepared for the mind blowing experience I would soon enter into as I was trained and tested in the tenets of “Systematic Theology”, “Christian Life and Ethics”, “Personal Evangelism”, and “Church at Work in the World”. There was more to Christianity than just “me and Jesus”, apparently, and my heart and intellect collided in the endeavor to sift through the many opposing doctrines being tossed in my lap for scrutiny. I had been introduced to “Calivnism”, “pre-millennialism”, “Lordship Salvation”, and “Easy Believism”. Within every classroom, dorm room, or student lounge, heated debates were testing new founded convictions on women in the Church, speaking in tongues, end times, faith vs. works, and free will vs. predestination. I was envious of my classmates who were able to pick a path, strap on some blinders and walk confidently without hemming and hawing at each fork in the road. I missed the old days, before everything was so complicated, but like a child who has seen her father eat the Christmas cookies left for Santa, I couldn’t trust any longer in the simplicity of my childhood beliefs.

After two years at Moody, I became a notorious church hopper. Most of my attendance decisions were based on convenience and with all the time I spent in chapel, Mission’s Conference and the annual Founder’s Week Bible conferences, I didn’t feel it necessary to plug into any one community. By this point I had lost the shiny idealism I entered with, and I accepted or dismissed theological beliefs with the streamlined precision of an experienced seminarian. The biblical interpretations were endless and it was up to me, through prayer and study, to decide which pieces I would mold together to form my own complete manifestation of truth. When no single Church catered to all of my Christian beliefs and preferences, I chalked it up to ignorance and started sleeping in on Sunday mornings.

I had started dating by that time my future husband, Troy. We shared similar frustrations, and a conviction that Christianity must contain elements we had not experienced thus far. Sometimes we would make the effort to peek outside our familiar circumference and take in a Lutheran, Episcopalian, or even a Catholic Service. The pomp with which they handled the Gospel, recited their litanies, and lined up for communion, both intrigued and unnerved me. The God I knew so intimately was being handled with kid gloves and I questioned the need for such formality. How could they sincerely worship without varying the music, the sermon series, or without spontaneity in their prayers? Surely, these scripted responses were dry remnants of denominations out of touch and out of sync with modern culture. Hadn’t the Reformation freed us from a works-based belief system, and breathed life into the cold, dead, liturgical groaning of the Middle Ages?

The winter semester of my Junior year, I was the given the assignment to attend a church service and evaluate its musical style. Troy had in his notebook the address of an Orthodox Church in the city he had been given by a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. He had been on that campus conducting religious surveys for class, and started a conversation with a young man whose father was an Orthodox Priest. Troy had recently read a book by Bishop Kallistos Ware, entitled “The Orthodox Way” for his History of Doctrine course, and was curious now to see this unfamiliar Liturgy in person. That Sunday we took the bus to Holy Trinity Cathedral. I will never forget the awe and fear that nearly took my breath away as we opened the heavy, wooden doors, and peered for the first time into the extravagantly foreign depths of Orthodoxy.

The Orthodox Church caters to the senses of its members. Visually, it is a feast for the eyes. As the Old Testament tabernacle was splendidly lavished in precious metals, silk, and jewels, so does the Orthodox create an environment of heavenly opulence designed to rescue our thoughts from earthly cares and focus our attention on the Kingdom of God. Icons, representing the “Great Cloud Of Witnesses” referred to in Hebrews 12:1, fill the sanctuary with their faith unashamed, and fervent desire for this generation of Christians to “run with perseverance the race set before us.” Priests serve in vestments that vary in color, depending on the Church calendar. The Gospel and communion chalice are ornately covered in gold. A fog of incense softens the brightness, and adds to the mystery, reminding parishioners with each inhalation of the final days in Revelation when Christ, enthroned in all His Glory, will be worshiped by every created thing. Upon first visiting, ones ears are assaulted by the strange drone of chanting woven throughout each service. All prayers and Scripture readings are sung in monotone, allowing the words to speak for themselves without the distraction of personal inflection or dialect. The clergy speak and dress in such a way to maintain anonymity. They do not face the people but rather turn toward the Altar, standing together with the congregation in reverent adoration of the Trinity.

Every church I had attended growing up, felt safe and warm in its familiarity. The sanctuaries looked much like my own living room, the kind pastors approachable in their sport coats and dress pants. The choruses were upbeat and melodic. The contrast on that Sunday was shocking. I did not get the sense from Holy Trinity Cathedral that I was welcome to come in and be ministered to. It was I who was expected to do the participating. The two hours we spent standing in the balcony seemed to drag on forever. My feet were aching, I couldn’t understand the order of the service, the smell of incense made my head spin, and the a cappella hymns and chanting reminded me of a cultic ritual. The clergy with their synchronized movements in and out of altar doors, swinging censers, and kissing of hands, books, crosses, and icons resembled the mechanized villagers I had once seen dancing in rotation on a giant Swiss cuckoo clock. When Troy and I finally made it out to the safety of the street, I looked at him to confirm my suspicion that whatever was going on in that place was purely heretical. On an otherwise solemn face, however, I found in his eyes a spark that burned like a single twig glowing beneath a pile of dry embers.

I can’t remember if either of us said much in summary of our experimentation. Troy, having read one book on the subject, was able to provide at least enough clarity for me to eek out my school paper. I did not plan on ever returning, and hurried back to campus reveling in the predictability of my comfort zone. While Troy quietly checked out more information, I wrestled with questions sprouting up in my thoughts at random intervals. “Why had I never heard about the Orthodox Church before?” “Where did it fit in historically?” “How can God be there, and with me at the same time?” I stepped up my church attendance, determined to find peace in a sedately gorgeous brownstone chapel within walking distance. I appreciated the literary references, intellectual ponderings and century old hymns sung by the black robed choir at my new place of Presbyterian worship. Its stoic and subdued demeanor seemed less emotional, and more respectful of God and His divinity. If I liked the sermon that week and the song choice of the choir, I would leave fulfilled. If the sermon failed, however, to connect with me personally or the hymns felt too dry to quench my spiritual thirst, I would try to take comfort in the hordes of other Churches lining the streets of this great big city, waiting to meet my needs. Often this attempt at reasoning, however, would backfire by confirming that I was too picky, too demanding and dangerously close to giving up altogether on ever feeling satisfied.

Troy and I continued to date, becoming more serious over time. The topic of Orthodoxy sprung up with greater frequency into our conversations, and Troy’s factual tidbits began gnawing their way into my psyche, distorting my assumptions of what defined “the Church”. We read, with heightened interest, about the “Great Schism” of 1054, when the original Church, established by the apostles split, East from West, over the final straw of the filioque (the addition made by the West to the Nicene Creed). While the Western church went on to split thousands of additional times, starting with the Reformation, the Eastern Church had remained in tact, utilizing the same Liturgy, sacraments, and structure of leadership as it had for the previous fifteen hundred years. The Orthodox Church was, indeed, out of touch with modern culture. Walking through the doors of Holy Trinity, I had entered a time warp and encountered a living artifact of antiquity.

Partly out of curiosity and partly out of love for Troy, I agreed to a few occasional visits over the next couple of months. Armed now with some basic knowledge and historical context, I wavered between heart felt appreciation for this symbolically saturated, sneak peek into early Christianity, and feelings of cold, clammy terror that even this silent observation was a blasphemous act of betrayal. I mumbled along to the Nicene Creed, the “Lord Have Mercy’s”, and the Lord’s Prayer, but my lips snapped shut at the mention of Mary, and my arms stiffened in protest to the notion that I should join others in crossing myself. “What do you want from me?” I prayed, over and over again, without any real hope of an answer.

After Liturgy, Orthodox Church members gather for a time of fellowship aptly named, “coffee hour.” Anyone receiving Eucharist on Sunday, must fast from food and drink starting from midnight, the evening before. To replenish themselves, they visit over plates of donuts, fruit or bagels, washed down with steaming cups of coffee. Troy and I had thus far, successfully avoided getting lured into one of these, but after about four non-consecutive Sundays of hiding in the balcony, a gray bearded doctor named Peter flagged us down. He was so kind and animated we didn’t have the heart to refuse him, and so we tagged along to meet in person the Church body my egotistical young brain had already summed up as distant and superstitious. Dr Peter set us down at a table by a couple not much older than Troy and I, with a six-month old baby. Joshua was welcoming, friendly and quick witted. Janine was very sweet and sincerely interested in how we ended up at the fellowship hour of an Orthodox Church.

Joshua’s father had been a priest, so he was very knowledgeable about church rubrics, Tradition, fasts, and feasts. He had also briefly attended Wheaton College, a non-denominational conservative Christian university, before returning to Orthodoxy as a young adult. To our relief, he was comfortingly aware of what would most alarm us and what aspects of the faith would require a thorough explanation. Before we left, Troy and I scheduled a time to get together at their small apartment just two blocks away.

Inside my head, throughout that time, was a scary place to be. I felt, literally, sick to my stomach as I imagined the faces of friends, family and professors, narrowing their eyes and turning down the corners of their mouths, demanding an explanation for this foolishness. An explanation I was in no position to give. I had nothing to stand on but a thin strand of hope, and even that was fraying under the weight of a potentially earth shattering decision looming in the future

Lunch, that next Sunday, was laced with inner tension. I was there to put Orthodoxy on trial. I wanted Joshua and Janine to defend their faith and their mode of worship. I was taken aback by their quiet confidence and easygoing manner throughout a conversation I now look back on, as somewhat of an attack. Why did they use icons? Why did they venerate Mary? Why did they believe in intercessory prayer? Never once did they turn the tables and rub in my face the disjointed factions within modern evangelicalism, and the unchecked freedom it had claimed to spawn updated views of the Gospel, changing the medium and the message as it saw fit. Joshua calmly provided clear, historical, and logical reasons for each practice I questioned. I started to understand that lining up Protestantism alongside Orthodoxy was like trying to compare apples and oranges. Orthodoxy was planted and grew in persecuted nations, comfortable with the allowance of mystery. If you asked an Orthodox Christian if they were “saved”, for example you would not get a neat, cut and dry, yes or no answer. Christianity, for the Orthodox, is seen as an organic whole, no one discipline or principle being defined outside the context of another. In the booklet “Am I Saved?” , which is part of a series put out by Light and Life, an Orthodox Christian Publisher, Father Theodore Bobosh explains Salvation this way:

The question, “Are you saved?”, appears to some to be shallow. It seems to imply
all that is needed is to say yes or no. Yet we also know that Christ taught us to take up our cross daily and to follow him. Christ told us to strive to enter into
Salvation (Luke 13:24). Christ has indeed accomplished His work for our Salvation, but ours is just beginning.

This answer, borderless and free flowing, did not come with a money-back guarantee that my name would be written with permanent ink in the Book of Life, but it certainly did seem to make good sense. If it was just a one shot deal, why go through the grueling effort to counteract every innate tendency toward self-preservation, in order to become empty vessels for Christ? Why did St. Paul describe Salvation as a race, to be run with perseverance? If I accepted the Orthodox position of Salvation as a process, it would not be within my jurisdiction to make judgments on the sincerity of my fellow athletes. I would be chiefly responsible, rather, for evaluating how effectively I was using my unique gifts and circumstances to glorify God, working out my own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil 2:12). Of course I would still believe in God’s goodness and limitless mercy. I would remember my place, however, as a servant and never assume ownership of such an amazing gift.

Being so accustomed to arrogantly picking apart everyone else’s faith, I had never realized the toll it was taking on my own spiritual life. I had lost, or perhaps had never even discovered, the awesome and mysteriously indefinable Gospel message. Perhaps Christianity needn’t be pinned down and organized in outline form. Maybe Christ’s teachings didn’t fit neatly in my predictable square box. That day my view of God exploded, shattering the barriers I had placed around Him and opening doors I never knew existed, hidden behind the heavy tapestries of Western culture.

Troy and I got engaged in December of 1996. I knew, without a doubt, I wanted to spend the rest of my life with him but I was no less miserable in that the road ahead was foggy and treacherous. My hunger for this bigger God compelled me to take another step forward but I wanted to carry along my evangelical safety net, even as it tangled around my feet and hindered my movement. I desperately desired the best of both worlds. Troy, in the meantime, had silently cut ties with his past and prepared to venture forward, come what may. This tension loomed between us threatening a permanent separation. I was in no man’s land. Through reading, attending regular Orthodox Services, and conversations with new Orthodox friends, I had learned enough to seriously entertain the possibility that the Orthodox Church contained within it, Truth as passed down from the apostles. There was still so much, however that I had not come to terms with, and was terrified to turn my back on a past that had been so influential in shaping my Christ-centered worldview. I couldn’t go back and I didn’t think I had it in me to move onward. The more confidant Troy became in his conviction to join the Orthodox Church, the more I resented his courage, my fear, and even God, Himself for presenting these choices without identifying the correct one with a big green checkmark.

Holy Trinity was offering catechism classes for those who were interested in learning more about the Orthodox faith. These were taught by a good-natured, frighteningly intelligent, and refreshingly rational long-time social worker named Tom. Together we went through The Orthodox Church by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Tom was funny and unbelievably knowledgeable. I still cannot fathom how one head could contain the ocean of facts he knew, not just about Orthodoxy, but about history, literature, and culture as well.

Tom’s approachability helped me relax, and I felt confident asking tough questions, knowing he was incapable of being offended. When asked why all the emphasis on Mary, he explained how her role as Theotokos, or “God-bearer,” protected the dogma of Christ being fully human and fully divine, which had been called into question during the early centuries of Christianity. Mary had always been revered as the first Christian and as the supreme example of submission. When the Roman Church introduced the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, Protestants overreacted by reducing Mary’s place in the plan of salvation to a seasonal backdrop for Christ’s glory.

Tom also explained how the Orthodox eagerly petition saints to intercede for them, not because the saints are seen to be equal with Christ in power and authority, but because Orthodox Christians view the afterlife as a curtain rather than a brick wall. Since these holy men and women had fought the good fight and were most definitely in the presence of the living God, Orthodox Christians could ask for their prayers, as we would ask a friend or family member here on earth to pray to God on our behalf.
“The Great Divorce” by C.S. Lewis illustrated beautifully for me the concept of death being an extension of the life we are now living.

These controversial issues, when actually studied and poked at, proved to have value and substance. By no means was I on board with everything I heard, but I was at least through assuming that any Orthodox practice I found difficult to understand automatically equaled heresy and spiritual treason. Each week, I was warming up to the idea of giving up the fight and resting in the strong arms of this Church. Troy and I went forward with wedding plans, looking forward to the day when we would be joined together in name and in faith. When it became obvious that a conversion was imminent, our families bravely offered us up to God. Their faith, despite a legitimate fear of the unknown, revealed a deep conviction of Christ’s sovereignty.

There was still so much I didn’t know. It would take a lifetime to familiarize myself with the symbolism, Church calendar, choir tones, and so forth. At first I was concerned about my lack of passion for Mary, the saints, and weekly fasting. What I had gratefully accepted, however, was a sincere belief that the Orthodox Church held within her unchanging Truth miraculously passed through thousands of hands, both good and evil, in periods of peace and intense persecution, without compromising the teachings of the Church Fathers or bowing to modernity. I was confident that my compliance would be rewarded with a genuine reverence for these Orthodox facets as I grew in knowledge and practice.

Orthodoxy is not easy. Many have jumped with fervor into her fullness, ultimately drowning from a lack of stamina. Orthodoxy should be savored slowly, taking bigger bites as your appetite naturally increases, not swallowed whole in one big zealous gulp. Having a spiritual father was invaluable in helping me to understand the spirit over the letter of the law. My priest lovingly guided me through my transition from a checklist-driven faith to a fluid, sacramentally fueled devotion to becoming a little more like Christ every second and with every circumstance put before me. Whereas before I had been in the habit of urging God to come down into my life, I now sought to enter into His.

In humble amazement over the years since our conversion, Troy and I have attended the chrismation services of one friend or family member after another. To worship alongside my brother, my parents, my college roommates and their husbands and children is nothing short of miraculous. What once seemed impossible is now the most real thing I know.

My eight-year-old son, running out to meet the bus, stops dead in his tracks and yells, “Mom, what about my blessing!” I approach him, smiling, and make the sign of the cross over his heart. “May the Lord God bless you,” I say, “in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” I pray as he departs that this small physical act of invoking the Trinity, translated in his mind as motherly love, will stay with him and his siblings, not just today, but for eternity.