SONGS OF FREEDOM: Part Five

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Part Five of Seven

RTE: Probably every married woman reading this can feel what you went through, Teresa. When were you finally baptized, Michael?

MICHAEL: About six years after I met Fr. Paisius. I was working towards baptism, going to classes along with our son Nesta, who was to be baptized with me. As I said earlier, we’d been doing this Rasta Revival Campout, with people attending from all over America. One year we had twelve different countries represented at the revival, topping off at 130 people. It was mostly Rasta, and even some pagan people who were sympathetic to Rasta, or thought Rasta was something it wasn’t. We sent fliers out, and after that people came by word of mouth.

As I became more attracted to Orthodoxy and it came time for my baptism, Fr. Paisius and I decided to have the baptism at the Rasta Revival Campout. There was a lake there and it was a good setting. I hate to say it, but some saw me as a leader in the Rasta movement in this area, and I thought that a public baptism would be a good way to show the group where I was going and how much this meant to me; to share it with them.

RTE: Your reasoning wasn’t so different from Orthodox missions centuries ago in Europe, Siberia, China, where, if the headman was baptized, everyone else followed. You were the head of your own little community.

MICHAEL: Yes, maybe to some, but about a week before the campout, something happened that meant we had to delay it for awhile. I was totally psyched, I really wanted to be baptized and was ready, but it just couldn’t happen. Now I believe this was God’s will. I went through a long period of reflection, and thoughts came up like,

“Maybe God doesn’t want me baptized …maybe this, maybe that. What do I tell these people who I primed up for the baptism, and who now want to know what happened?”

But, over that year I became so strong and so ready, that in the end it was even more powerful.

The only thing I worried about was our son. He was fourteen, and didn’t understand why we’d had to put it off. We’ve raised him pretty free, not telling him what to do. Of course, we made suggestions in a parental way, about what we felt was right, and tried to teach by our example.

We home-schooled him, and, in a way, let him direct his little life under our protection. Although I had my own questions during that time, I kind of let him be. Finally, when the baptism could happen again, we decided to do it on Theophany.

Before Christmas, I took Nesta aside and said,

“I’m going to get baptized on Theophany, and it’s up to you if you want to.”

He instantly said,

“On one condition.”

I said,

“What, Nesta? What’s your condition?”

He said,

“Only if Fr. Paisius is doing it.”

So, I called Fr. Paisius and he said,

“Of course.”

When it happened, it was a very powerful thing. My next-door neighbor came, Teresa’s sister came, and Teresa’s favorite aunt, who came to witness Nesta’s baptism because she had promised Teresa’s mother that she would see that the grandchildren were baptized. Teresa, of course, had been baptized as a baby. When we were baptized Orthodox she came with us to church from time to time but wasn’t ready to come in herself. It was a huge change for her because I had been so deeply Rasta. Our whole married life had been built around Rastafari, and now I was changing.

RTE: Teresa, how did you feel about Nesta coming to Orthodoxy?

TERESA: I was really glad to see him baptized. It was something I’d wanted for him, and it happened when he was fourteen. It was his own decision, and marked the boundaries between childhood and adulthood. He’s a good boy, really beautiful. It didn’t change our relationship. My mother, who had already died, wanted all of her grandchildren baptized, and this fulfilled her dream.

As Michael said, we home-schooled Nesta, structuring his schooling around what he was interested in. When it was dinosaurs, we’d do math and reading around dinosaurs, we’d do everything around dinosaurs. We raised him with the idea that children are born knowing what they need to learn. Our job as parents is to give them the tools they already sense they will need as adults. We would say,

“Nesta, you know what you need. We’re trusting you. You need us to be your guides, but you know what you’ll need as an adult.”

I was trusting the universe to lead us both. Every year I’d ask,

“Are you ready to go to school this year?”

Finally, he did go in the sixth grade and then on through high school. He didn’t do very well grade-wise, but I didn’t care about that. He knows how to work, and he’s got confidence and family warmth behind him. He can do anything he wants.

MICHAEL: Teresa was finally chrismated Orthodox on Palm Sunday in 2005, and in August, on our 25th wedding anniversary, we had our marriage blessed in the Orthodox Church. The day our marriage was blessed was beautiful. Besides the service, which was very powerful for both of us, it meant a lot that my parents and most of Teresa’s large family were there. They stayed through the marriage service and the liturgy, a long haul for non-Orthodox folks. Friends from the church made the food.

RTE: Wonderful. Teresa, has your outlook changed since you’ve become Orthodox?

TERESA: One thing that I felt from all of my reading was that every religion has the same basic principles of loving God, of being kind to others, living simply, being at peace. I was looking for a way to apply these principles, and I thought,

“Well, you know, here I am in this marriage forever and ever, I’m not going to leave, so let’s apply it here. Let’s apply what I’ve learned in this church.”

Some of the things I’d been reading said that sin is an illusion, and many Orthodox elders express that same principle – not that it doesn’t happen, but that it isn’t what’s eternal. The thing that changed for me when

I became Orthodox was that Jesus Christ as God became real. Zen Buddhism didn’t have that, nor did Rasta, Bahai, or Hare Krishna. I also liked the structure of Orthodoxy. I’d always wanted to fast, and I’d always wanted to have a rule of prayer, but I didn’t have the discipline.

Now, I have help. Michael encourages me to pray with him every morning and before sleep, and fasting isn’t difficult. I actually like being hungry and the feeling of being empty. I guess I needed a solid reason to do it. But I have to say that even after I was chrismated, being Orthodox was uncomfortable for a long time. I’d quit every other day, and then decide to try again.

RTE: What didn’t sit right?

TERESA: I realized that I had been chrismated not because I really wanted to be Orthodox, but because I loved Michael. Now, I was struggling with my own identity, and was tired of arguing with Michael over ideas about faith, such as my reading A Course in Miracles, which I had loved. I was feeling a void. One day, another home health-care giver, a born-again Christian, stuck her head around the corner of the room I was working in. With tears in her eyes (she had recently reluctantly divorced), she looked at me in the mirror and said,

“If you love your husband as much as you say you do, I’d join his church. You have a good marriage, a good husband. Don’t disrespect this gift that God has given you.”

Well, that statement sank deep into my heart, into my bones, into my blood, and I cried a steady stream of tears. I realized then that I was fighting against God, and that I was losing the battle, the battle of my will, my way.

I don’t like to lose, I don’t like learning to be humble, I don’t like admitting my sinfulness. I had this grand idea that “I am a good person, I am not a sinner!”

But in Orthodoxy, losing is gaining. Losing my way, losing my will, admitting my sinfulness is gaining His good grace, gaining “unexpected joy.” It’s not about winning anything.

RTE: I think you’ve just expressed the whole essence of spiritual life. Was there anything you read that helped you along the way?

TERESA: Yes. The first was Touching Heaven, about a young man’s pilgrimage to Valaam, then: The Royal Way of the Cross Leading to Eternal Life; Orthodox Prayer Life; Communion of Love; St. Basil, The Wonderworker of Ostrog; St. Silouan the Athonite, Shepherd of Souls… also, many of the non-Orthodox spiritual books I read contributed to the way I perceive Orthodoxy. I bring all of that experience with me to what I am today. Most recently I read The Joy of Full Surrender. I happened on it in a used bookstore and it’s been very uplifting, especially during Lent.

What I see now is that in Orthodoxy you can be who you are. You can pray morning, noon, and night or you can lead a life in the world and come to church as you can. It’s not even about what you want – it’s about what Christ wants for you. You just need to let that happen. You don’t have to change yourself, you let God change you. This is what’s freeing about Orthodoxy. I don’t have to change, I just have to be. God will change me if and when He wants to, the way He wants to. Now, I’m at peace with that.





Comments

  1. I am enjoying this conversion story. As one who is currently exploring Orthodox Christianity, it is encouraging to see diversity in the people who are coming into the Faith, and the different circumstances God uses to draw each of us.

  2. I’ve been enjoying this story, so far. Ive appreciated the cultural insights and book recommendations. That said, this chapter brought me to tears. What a beautiful story.

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