Herman Tristram Engelhardt: How I Became Orthodox

Dr. Engelhardt was born in Texas to Roman Catholic parents, but became Orthodox in his mature years, taking the name Herman after St. Herman of Alaska. He studied philosophy and medicine and is now a professor at two Universities in Houston, Texas. His research has been done mainly in Bioethics and his most important contribution to Orthodox ethics is his book “The Foundations of Christian Bioethics”.

At the Symposium for Intensive Care organized in Bucharest, Professor of Philosophy and Medicine Tristram Engelhardt presented a paper. During a discussion in Bucharest, a question was put forward on how he became Orthodox. His reply is published below transcribed directly from a recording and translated [to Greek] by Anastasios Philippides.

How I became Orthodox? The answer is: only through the love of God.

Once I went to Mount Athos and one monk told me:

“Look around you at all these people. The repentance of all these people is a miracle from God.”

I had very devout Roman Catholic parents who sent me to a very good Roman Catholic school, and in the fifth grade I was reading the history of the Church and I realized that the Church of the first five centuries I had never seen before. And I asked a nun:

“Why isn’t the Roman Catholic Church like the early Church?”

The sister looked at me like I was crazy. And since I was in fifth grade I stayed quiet.

Elementary School seemed very boring, but I liked the Mass. And I was an altar boy which I really liked. Since I was lazy, when I went to the sanctuary I didn’t go to school. I liked it more, being an altar boy in church.

In the eighth grade, in 1954, a Roman Catholic priest told me that a Uniate bishop would be coming from Palestine and that he was to perform the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. I did not know it and had to read it to become the altar boy for the Liturgy. And I did this. But I did not know that there was a Matins before this, and for one and a half hours I could not understand what was happening. And then this old Bishop came to me and told me:

“Come here, this is for you. All true Christianity will disappear in the course of your life from the West. True Christianity will come from the East and this will be very important for you.”

I thought he was crazy. I told him:

“What?”

And he said:

“All Christianity would disappear from the West during your life. True Christianity will come as light from the East.”

I asked my father:

“What is he saying? Is he a crazy man from Palestine?”

And I continued to live my life.

In 1984 someone called me from the man who had come second in the last election to become Pope of Rome. Since he was a candidate for Pope he had to start early, like a presidential candidate of the USA. And picking a group of intellectuals to help him in his campaign, he asked me to become one of them. And they asked me to go for six weeks to Milan. I told them I cannot go for six weeks I am very busy. But then my second daughter, whom if I can say is crazy like me (the first is 38 years old and has four children), on Christmas tells me:

“Can I come with you to Milan?”

And how can a father tell his fourteen year old daughter no, so I said “OK”. The person on the phone told me that he would pay for expenses. And so I worked a lot with Martini, this candidate. And I understood for the first time in my life that the entire Christianity of the West was the creation of Germans and a few Swiss who had made the Reformation.

In 1988 I was invited to the Institute of Higher Learning in Berlin and when invited to speak there I felt like a whore realizing that what I was doing was wrong. I prayed:

“My God, if there is any true religion, show it to me and I will switch.”

And for the first time in my life I had this experience, that in my mind I felt a fear that I had not ever felt before.

Within a week, we saw several commercials for a Christian music concert, since we went to them. We’re from the South where it is very hot and we were afraid to stay in Berlin for Christmas where we would freeze. We wondered where to go for now so as not to freeze during the Christmas holiday, and I arranged to give lectures at the University of Istanbul, at the Marmara University. And we went there for Christmas. So on Christmas day my wife said:

“Where can we go for Mass?”

And I said:

“Let’s go to the Greek one.”

And we went to the Phanar. It was the first Orthodox Liturgy that I followed. Patriarch Demetrios was there. My second daughter touched me and told me:

“Father this is the true religion, is it not? And I said: ‘I’m afraid you have a point, because it is very poor.”

And we went back to Texas and began to ask if a Texan can become Orthodox. Someone who was a Baptist from Texas told me:

“If I can become one, you can also become one.”

And so with the patience of God I first became one and afterward both my daughters. And then my wife, who is Irish, who are very passionate Baptists, who has two stories about her conversion. The one is when she said:

“Bless me Saint Patrick, I am returning home”,

and another she wrote was:

“From Rome to Home”.

I thank God!

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Comments

  1. Travis Cutbirth says:

    Wonderful, thank you for sharing this! I came from a split Protestant (Pentacostal, later Vineyard/Calvary Chapel oriented) and Catholic home. Later my parents compromised with an Evangelical Presbyterian Mega/Seeker-sensitive church. Lots of nice lectures. And frigid, uncompassionate rich people in the pews. And cnstant apostasy and licentiousness. My wife was raised fundamentalist/”Bible-church”, and we got married in such a place. That was a sad time in our lives, and I realized that this so-called “pastor”, who loved to rip into Roman Catholics with abandon, was himself the little pope of this church, and a tyrannical, judgemental and unloving one at that. Skip forward – years of being tired of the constant private interpretations we found everywhere we went – pentecostal, mainline, emergent and everything in between – we at last found the Orthodox Church.

    I had been reading casually about it for some years after hearing an interview with Franky Schaeffer, and later reading a special issue from Christianity Today magazine (where my wife’s sister worked for many years in Wheaton, IL). Later, I read intently for about 6 years, even visiting our local Orthodox Church and, quite frankly, was scared off by the absolute reality of the presence of God and the Saints, that Cloud of Witnesses we read about. My heart (nous :) wanted to stay and understood what was going on, but my greedy, over-analytical mind was frightened and affronted, and had some unanswered questions, so I chickened out. 5 years later, we joined some friends at a quasi-charismatic, non-canonical “Orthodox” sect, but quickly grew wary of the inconsistencies we saw there – not to mention the prompting of the Holy Spirit to come further. However, the “pastor” of that church had written what is really an excellent introduction to Orthodoxy for Western/American Christians, and it did a lot to answer some of the final questions I had, prompting us to investigate real Orthodoxy more closely.

    A friend asked us to come with her to the real (and modestly beautiful) Orthodox church nearby, which we couldn’t refuse since, at this point, all my theology was essentially Orthodox and I had tired of Western theological speculation (and lack of Orthopraxy). I went, thinking I could catch the priest in some small point and justify going back to what I was comfortable with, or something like it, but a strange thing happened. When I went to confront him with my questions, they just melted away in the presence of his beaming smile and the Holy Spirit. Just before that, when I (unexpectedly to myself) went up to venerate the cross afterwards, I was stunned to be literally enveloped by the love of Christ as the Father blessed me and smiled at me. He patiently answered the few questions I could mutter as the Holy Spirit and the Love of Christ beamed from his heart, and the time I spent there with him, seeing his countenance and basking in the Love of Christ manifest in him, taught me more about Christ and the love of God than did 20 years of formal theological reading.

    I knew I would never be able to leave, and didn’t want to (to be honest, I was pretty scared, too, as was my wife). This is passing over the supernatural dream I had earlier that week which correlated with two icons I saw at the Church (this shook me, also), and the supernaturally holy fragrance which emanated from the priest as I approached him (I am very sensitive to smells, and one of the things that had turned me off to the pseudo-Orthodox church was the corruption which emanated from that “pastor’s” mouth and person).

    I am SO thankful to have finally come home, I could stay up all night typing and there wouldn’t be enough words. My kids literally thank me multiple times each week for bringing us to Orthodoxy. But that would actually be the work of the Holy Spirit, not me :)

  2. Travis,

    You should expand on your post and turn it into an article for us!

  3. Cheryl Lipscomb says:

    Travis, my husband and I also came from Calvary Chapel. We both along with two of our Children have had a very similar experience coming into Orthodoxy .

  4. I just converted to Rome from Anglicanism (Anglican Priest). Have found a very cold reception so far. Orthodoxy was not on my radar screen so much in the past but I am looking into it…..

  5. Fr. John says:

    Tim, you will find many stories of conversions from the Roman church to Orthodoxy, by going HERE.

    Don’t worry. Just ask the Holy Spirit to guide you, and be sure to follow where He leads.

    And stay in touch. It’s a well worn path.

  6. Fr. John says:

    Conversions from Anglicanism can be found HERE.

    And, of course, Clergy Conversion storires can be found HERE.

  7. Thanks Father. I need to pray!!

  8. Fr. John, bless!

    As an inquirer who has moved to your town 4 weeks ago, I thank you and our Triune God for this blog. I needed to read your words… “Just ask the Holy Spirit to guide you…” as well as “It’s a well-worn path.”

    Although I had first visited an EO church some 40 years ago, it wasn’t until my DH and I saw the icons from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai at the Getty on Sunset, and got to speak briefly with Fr. Justin, that the seeds of the Orthodox Church were sprinkled into my soul. Sure, the icons were amazing to see. However, it was the overflow crowd of the EO faithful visitors and their quiet witness that profoundly touched me and my DH.

    Raised in, and confirmed in, the Lutheran church (yes, 3 years of confirmation classes), I left as a young adult to immerse myself in non-denominational evangelical churches of many “colors”. And, I married a man exposed to the RCC who, out of love, became a reluctant Protestant when we got married. He now hints he may start catechumen classes at the RCC in our new home town.

    So, Fr. John, I pray the EO daily prayers, I’ve come to love The Jesus Prayer and icons, and my husband respects God’s obvious nudges in my life concerning the EO church. But, he’s not drawn to the EO “smells and bells” as I am, so I’m guessing I’ll go to vespers at your parish, and worship with my DH elsewhere Sunday mornings.

    As with many things in my 5 decades, guess I’ll need to pray specifically and trust it all in God’s almighty hands.

    One thing I do struggle with is…if our Lord is leading me to Orthodoxy…having to give up Protestant traditions I dearly love, such as the Lutheran Lenten season. Old, Protestant hymns that are dear to me. (I’m very weary of the “I-me-my” worship songs sung in evangelical churches today!) Everything I’ve known and loved from my childhood. But, I am drawn to EO, and I read blogs and listen to podcasts daily.

    As you wrote, I’m on a well-worn path. But, I don’t have anyone to share it with, so maybe Vespers is the next step?

  9. Cherry,

    We’ll see you at Vespers, then!

    Fr. John

  10. Cherry, I understand at least some of what you are saying – and, about the Lutheran Lenten season, once you have experienced an Orthodox Great Lent I think you will have a wholly different perspective of the Lutheran Lent! Then there is Pascha! The Great Pascha! The Holy Pascha! Oh MY! You can always listen to, and sing the hymns of your childhood at home. That’s what we do around Christmas/Nativity. We listen to Orthodox Nativity hymns, but we also listen to the Anglican Christmas carols for nostalgia purposes. I no longer find Anglican or other Protestant Easter hymns of interest – but it comes from inside me, not imposed by anyone else. So, all I can say is apparently you need to explore Eastern Orthodoxy.

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