Sunday, August 2, 2009

So why did you become Orthodox?--Part III: Inquiry, conversion, journey

In July of 2005, I attended my first Orthodox service, a Great Vespers at St. Mary Antiochian Orthodox Church. I remember that the building was primarily empty. I saw a woman chanter (later my friend, Holly Walsh) at the stand in front of the pews, but what I mainly remember was the icon screen in front of the Church. I had no idea what this was or why it was there. I just remember that this style of church architecture was nothing I had ever seen before. I was full of questions and of wonder. Later on, a person in a black robe introduced himself as Aaron Warwick. He also was a chanter. He invited me to stay afterwards and meet the priest and I said I would.

I had no idea what I was in for. I just remember the beauty of it all, the chanting, the prayers, the incense. I was particularly stricken by how much of the hymnography revolved around the psalter. You hear selections from the first kathisma of the psalter (Psalms 1-8), then the complete recitation of psalms 140, 141, 129 and 116 with hymns dedicated to the crucifixion/resurrection of Christ as well as hymns to the saint. It was constant prayer, no breaks. There was something very ancient about this mode of prayer. Of course, I was following as well as I could with the service book but not knowing what quite to expect. From my western liturgical upbringing, which, unfortunately, rarely, if ever, included the celebration of Vespers I was struggling to find things I recognized. The only thing I found was the canticle of Saint Symeon, which we in the West call the "Nunc Dimittis," "Lord now lettest Thou Thy servant depart in peace." The rest of it was completely new. I also was not used to having no organ play. Everything was chanted in a plainsong which I later learned was called Byzantine.

The service concluded. It was less than an hour and Aaron introduced me to Fr. Don Hock. I had a host of questions, but I remember that one of the first I asked regarded whether the Orthodox were in communion with Rome. At the time, I seemed to think that communion was Rome and fidelity to the pope was absolutely necessary. Fr. Don answered negatively, but that was not a deal breaker. For the first time, in a long time, if ever, I found a worshipping community, a church inundated with a long and living tradition of prayer, free from innovation and the emotionalism that has come to dominate western expressions of Christianity. Such was my first experience with Eastern Orthodoxy. It was not to be my last. But my days with the Lutheran Church were drawing to an abrupt halt.

Aaron made it a point to keep in touch with me and I appreciated it. He invited me to more of the services especially as the Feast of the Transfiguration was approaching. I thanked him but replied I was going to my cousin's wedding in Minnesota. I did ask what I could be reading to further my inquries and he recommended to me two books both by the same author "The Orthodox Church" and "The Orthodox Way" both by Timoty Ware, himself a convert to Orthodoxy, who later became Bishop KALLISTOS in England. I took these two books with me on my trip to Minnesota adn the more I read, the more I knew I could no longer be Lutheran. I was struck by not only the historicity of the Church, which I considered an important criterion for the true church, but also by its mysticism and its central focus on prayer. I found it striking that, unlike the Catholic Church and other western expressions of
Christianity, there was no need to dogmatize everything. It's not that the faith was left to choice or individual conscience, but that there was a strong lex orandi, lex credendi where the "law of prayer is the law of faith." In other words, the prayers are the faith and there is no need to go further than that.

I was filled with zealousness. Too much as a matter of fact. On my trip to Minnesota for my cousin's wedding, I began to find every fault I could with the Lutheran Church. My cousin was married in an ELCA (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) church and his wife was going to be a minister in the ELCA. Although the ELCA and the LCMS have many doctrinal differences, there is still a more or less settled truce which allows members to receive the eucharist in services of the other. I refused. My dad did, too, but only, and correctly, because he regards the ELCA as heretical. My mom and my sister both received and I remember that they asked why I did not. All I could was respond that I was becoming Orthodox and that my Lutheranism was behind me. Unfortunately, my desire for Orthodoxy was not tempered by humility but I became arrogant with the knowledge that I was now pursuing correct doctrine and the correct faith and that everything else should either conform to it or be shunned. I know better now.

I returned to Nebraska to begin my second year at Bellevue East, but Sundays were now different for me. Rather than trying to wake up early to get to Lamb of God Lutheran Church by 8:00 am, I now woke up at the same time and headed to St. Mary's where I first attended Orthros at 8:45 and then the Divine Liturgy at 10:00. I still continued my attendance at Saturday Vespers as well. But, I didn't know what to do. As I said earlier, Vespers was attended by only a handful of people. I found that the same was true of Orthros (Matins). Hardly anyone came to this service, but I immediately became enamored with it. It became my favorite service to go to and I learned some of the hymns and started chanting it, from my seat in the very back, with the chanters in the back. My favorite was the Evlogetaria, the Hymn of Resurrection sung every Sunday (well, most every Sunday). I loved the melody and I loved the text. I don't think I ever heard the centrality of the Gospel, the Resurrection of Christ, both God and man, which we may partake of at the end as well.
But, I still was largely in the dark as to what was going on. I didn't know anyone there and the one person I did know was at the chanter's stand.

The Liturgy began and again, I really didn't know what was going on. Though there was a book in the pew about the Liturgy, the whole essence of what was going on could not be described by the texts or the music, the various times when the sign of the cross was made or when it was appropriate to stand or sit (though I learned later that the correct posture for prayer is always to be standing). I know that I couldn't even begin to understand what was going on and that only with a lot more attendance at these Liturgies could that happen. At the end of the Liturgy, instead of people just simply leaving, they came up forward to kiss and reverence a cross that the priest held. I admit I was uncomfortable with this, not because I didn't reverence the cross (I very much did) but the idea of kissing a holy object was totally foreign to me. But I did it and it felt very natural. Fr. Don then invited me to come back for coffee hour and to set up an appointment with him to talk some more.

Over the course of the next couple of months, I regularly attended the full cycle of Vespers on Saturdays, then Orthros followed by Liturgies on Sundays. I loved being engaged in a church life that was totally devoted to worship of the One God in Trinity. Trinitarian invocations and doxologies were said or chanted a myriad of times during these services. It confused me. Also confusing was the numerous repetitions of phrases such as "Lord, have mercy" or "In the name of the Father, Son and HOly Spirit" etc.. This was clearly a more mystical approach to theology that I had never considered because it was just not part of mine growing up. Helping me through all this confusion was the continued guidance of the chanter, Aaron Warwick and his wife Gwen. The two of them were very generous towards me, frequently inviting me over to their place for dinner. I was also starting to make other friends in the parish such as Dr. Mike Kutayli, Jessica Mannion and Rachel Ream. With the exception of Dr. Mike, all these people were converts to the Orthodox faith and so it was comforting to know that I wasn't the only one in this situation.

Beginning in late October, I went to my first catechism class. The purpose of this class was to instruct those who wished to be received into the faith. These were held on Sundays after coffee hour and went for hours at a time. Whenever I went to one of these at the Lutheran church, such a class was always held to one hour. Such was not the case here. We would discuss things for hours. I meticulously took notes and read as much as I could. I also started to try pryaer in the Eastern tradition. I picked up a copy of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery Prayer book, which Aaron recommended. It was very odd and very different. The repetitions were still there and the prayers were nothing like I had ever prayed before. For so long, I had been searching out the right words with which to call upon the Lord and I had at last found them. The language was a little difficult to get around but I sensed not only the antiquity in these words but the profound theological debt. I also started to collect icons for my private devotional life.

As I started to learn and grow in the faith, I also started to become arrogant. I had found the true faith, the true church, thus, everyone needs to know and everyone needs to believe as I do and if you don't, your're wrong, plain and simple. When I went home for Christmas, I first went to Christmas Eve services at the Lutheran Church with my parents and all I could do was complain about how backward and irreverent it all seemed and said that the Orthodox faith was nothing like this. I also remember that as I went into the sanctuary, I made three metanoias, which I should not have done. One of the parishioners called this "garbage." Wow! I had no idea that showing reverence and feaer of God would ever be considered "garbage." However, on closer inspection, I realize that what I did could only have brought attention to myself, which I know I didn't want. Since Lutheranism is part of the western tradition, I should have, instead, simply knelt and made the sign of the cross. After that, I went to the OCA parish which began it's celebration at 10:00 pm. And it was magnificent. There was such great singing. I even got to witness a whole family received into the Orthodox Church. I knew that is what I would be going through soon.

I celebrated Christmas with the rest of my family and then went back to Omaha. I continued on my journey and then I entered into the great and holy fast preparing for the Lord's Pascha (what the Orthodox call Easter). FAsting was difficult for me simply because I had never done it before. I asked Fr. Don what I should do and he said that I should gradually and steadfastly practice a limited fast of maybe only two days a week. At the same time, I was always reminded that fasting was not the goal, but the means to a goal--becoming like Christ and partaking of His nature. So, I tried that and I increased my prayers for aid in this time of repentance. The thing which struck me was the massive increase of services during Great Lent. When I was Lutheran I remember that during Lent only one service would be added a week. During the first week of Great Lent, there was something every day of the first week! It was magnificent.

During the first week of Great Lent, I went to the service of Great Compline. I looked forward to the chanting of "God is with us" from Isaiah in tone 6. Later on, there was the chanting of the Great Canon by St. Andrew of Crete, a long poem composed by a sixth century saint about repentance. The words bit me and stung hard because, from these words, taken from the whole corpus of Scripture, I realized that nothing I have done could even be called repentance, but, at the same time, I should not fear because of God's great gift in the form of His only begotten Son that whatever repentance I lack, he makes it sufficient. That does not excuse me from repenting since, one of the things I learned in catechism class was that we work with God in our salvation. This was in stark contrast to Lutheranism which held that one can do nothing for his own salvation, that everything is dependent upon God, that man has nothing good in him. This is mainly an inheritance from St. Augustine who believed that man's goodness from creation was totally destroyed with the first sin of Adam. But such is not the Orthodox belief, which holds that man's goodness was blackened and made corrupt but not utterly so. Thus, there is something left within us, very small to be sure, which we can draw upon to work with God. It's not about percentages though. It's not like God does 90% of the work and I 10% or anything else. It's not about numbers, but we are called to work with God as St. Paul tells us "to work out your salvation with fear and trembling." We do have responsibility, but at the same time our weakness is perfected by God and that is why He came in the flesh to die.

As I progressed through Lent, I was growing ever more excited and more nervous. I didn't think I was doing enough. I didn't think I had prepared myself enough or had done all the right rituals. I was still in the mindset that the faith was about checklists and doing certain things that needed to be fulfilled before progressing to the next step. I was told repeatedly by Fr. Don, Aaron and Gwen that such was not the case. I tried to believe that but I still had difficulties. Aaron and Gwen decided to have some fun with this. I chose them both to be my godparents/sponsors for the Orthodox faith. So, they started telling me that I had to do all sorts of different things to prepare. One of them was that I had to wear all white for my chrismation. Of course, I didn't have anything all white so I went nuts trying to find an actual white suit. Of course, Gwen and Aaron were laughing their asses off at what I was trying to do.

As I continued to go through Lent and my catechism classes, one of the things that I had to do before Holy Week and my chrismation was make confession to Fr. Don. I was not looking forward to this at all. I remembered when I made confessions to Fr. Houser when I was a Lutheran, but I knew this would be different. This would be a complete enumeration (or as close to it as possible) of the sins of my life. I spent hours going over some Scriptures that are appointed to be read before confessing, reading questions I should ask myself, praying to not be ashamed or hold anything back. I made a complete list. It was five pages long (and I still have it!), single spaced. I made my confession, reading from this list, and my eyes welled up with tears. I knew I was a sinful being, but I had no idea that this lifetime of sins would be so much and so overwhelming. Like many people, I tend to view sin as something inevitable in human life and so you begin ignoring them. But as I knelt there, before the icon of the Transfiguration of our Lord with Fr. Don standing before me, I wept and I filled my face with tears. After so long, I realized that all of these "little sins" had amounted to, indeed, a great amount. These tiny drops of water formed a pool! I was ashamed and I was embarassed. Fr. Don said that he felt blessed to hear my confession. How can a priest possibly be blessed to hear a confession like mine?! But, after he gave me absolution, I realized that Fr. Don was a man to whom I really could tell anything. I felt comfortable with him. After absolution, he embraced me as his spiritual son and I continued on my way towards Pascha. And, for the first time in a long time, I felt clean and free. I especially felt free from the guilt I was still carrying from Sara's suicide, which I still blamed myself for.

Holy Week arrived and again the number of services increased. There was something every morning and every evening. At all of these services, the catechumens were brought up and prayed for. I needed all the prayers I could get.

I cannot go into the depth of all the services I witnessed especially on Thursday and Friday nights. I have never experienced the passion of our Lord so profoundly as I did on these days. It is such a rich tradition that one can only experience for himself what goes on.

HOly Saturday came, the day of my chrismation and reception into the Orthodox Church. I prayed the night before and the morning before the service that I would be made worthy to receive the life giving body and blood of my Lord and God and Saviour. I think I looked ridiculous, though. Still heeding Gwen and Aaron's words, I wore my charcoal suit with a white shirt and a white tie. It looked stupid, but I did so because I still believed, thanks to their influence, that I had to wear all white. Gwen and Aaron were both laughing. Typical. The service was long and it was inspiring. I was given the seal of the Holy Spirit upon my head, my eyes, my lips, my hands, my feet. Every time this was done, the word "Seal!" was shouted by the congregation. It gave me chills. It gave me a lot of chills, actually. Did I know what I was doing?

Finally the time came when I received the Eucharist. I had been without the Lord's body and blood for a long time and I was wondering what would be different. Would it taste different? Would it transform me? Would I start to glow? I'm serious about those questions. But I received it and there was no physical change, but, if anything it made me realize that this was something worth waiting and preparing for.

At the end of the Liturgy, the other catechumens and I came up to the front of the church where we were blessed again and "God grant you many years" was sung to us. I broke down in tears because I had finally come to my spiritual home. It took a long time, but I was so happy to have finally arrived.

But the journey has not ended. I still continue to grow and I still continue to stumble and fall. Being Orthodox is not a "get out of sinning free" card. I still have many temptations and passions that I wrestle with on a daily basis. Orthodoxy is a life and it is a difficult life to follow in spirit and truth. I have made more than my share of mistakes and I will continue to do so. I was told in catechism class that the Holy Fathers always viewed the Church as a hospital. Here, in the Orthodox Church, are all the tools, physicians and medicines to make one truly healed.

Glory to God for all things!

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