by Ben Cabe
Why would a Protestant Christian convert to Eastern Orthodox Christianity? Such a question cannot be answered through the use of dogmatic assertions or theoretical musings. For such a question presupposes a particular person’s journey of faith. And such a journey can only be spoken of from experience.* Similarly, Christianity at its core is an encounter with Christ—a relationship—not a formal set of dogmas. It is not my aim to embark on the process of comparative religion. The journey I wish to take you on is my own: how a nominal Protestant Christian, and his family, found the fulness of Christ in the Eastern Orthodox Church.
My Christian Background
I grew up as an active participant in a non-denominational Protestant church in rural Michigan. At this same church I met a woman who would, in 2009, become my wife. My father, a music pastor and missionary, along with my mother, led their five children, of whom I am the fourth, to faith in Christ. Through the promptings of my older sister I asked Jesus into my heart at the age of six. Seeing no major reason, at the time, to be baptized right away, I waited until I was ten. At fifteen, while in Africa, God audibly spoke to me: an experience that rocked my world.
Around this time I began reading every book on theology and philosophy that I could get my hands on—beginning, of course, with C.S. Lewis. By seventeen I had delved into Plato and Aristotle and eventually wound up following the timeline of history and reading a variety of philosophers and theologians. At that point in time, my World Religion’s Professor began offering free Koine Greek lessons before class; this kick-started my interest in biblical Greek, though I am still an amateur. I can see, though only in part, that God has used all of these interests as instruments to pave the way towards union with Him through Eastern Orthodoxy.
At eighteen, as my reading list would have proclaimed, I was really into Christianity. But the reading list is pretty much where it stopped. Christianity was in my head but not my heart, and I did not even realize that this was a problem.
Between 2007 and 2009 I went through several phases. I was a professing Christian, a skeptic, agnostic, neoplatonic dualist, a priori enthusiast, a “who gives a f***ist” . . . Between what I was reading and what I was undergoing during that period of time my entire life was thrown completely out of balance.
And then I got married.
We lived together as newlyweds 2000 miles away from where we grew up . . . and we did alright. We were attending a Baptist church and it was really good for us. We got involved and I began attempting to “lead” as I perceived a godly husband should—though I didn’t really know what this should look like. When we moved back to our hometown a year later we fell back into a stupor—floating along nominally and attending the church we grew up in.
Until we found out we were pregnant.
The Beautiful Crisis
“Honey, that says positive.”
She was holding out the pregnancy test. We were both in disbelief. It was summer 2011; we were in our second year of marriage. Finding out you’re going to be a dad will straighten you out really fast. I was working as a barista in a small coffee shop. My wife, a nurse, was working in home health care. The plan up to that point had been to continue the road toward my PhD in philosophy—I really liked metaphysics. But not anymore. That was the first thing that had to go, I knew it. I needed a real job, not a PhD in a field where I might not even find a job—and would most likely go crazy trying to explain sunlight to people looking at shadows. The second thing we realized was we needed to get serious about life—what were we doing? And most importantly we needed to get serious about God.
The next several months consisted of job and soul searching. For the first time as a couple, we began to wake up, sing hymns, and read scripture together. We also began praying in the evenings before bed. At that point, we were only attending church to see our old friends. That wasn’t a good reason. So we went church “shopping” and found a new, solid, Bible believing church. And it was good for us.
Around this time our son was born.
The Road from Protestantism to the Eastern Orthodox Church
When we first switched from the church we grew up in to a different—though still non-denominational—protestant church, we were really convicted by the preaching. I remember it vividly. We were laying in bed on a Sunday evening and a dread feeling of conviction came upon me. It felt like a rotting in my soul . . . like if I didn’t say something, I would slowly decompose in my own filth. I opened my mouth hesitantly and began to confess all kinds of things to my wife. And she did the same. The Spirit of God was clearly present. We wept; over our sins but also out of joy because, having confessed, we were free. But as we continued to attend the same church over the next few months we quickly realized that we needed something different. We needed more. There had to be more than appropriating, and then distributing, “get-out-of-hell-free cards”. There had to be more than “God looking down on us from above.” The question that was singeing the edges of my mind was this: How can I keep Christ in front of me every moment of every day? What I was really asking was, how do we abide in Christ?
Until that point, if you would have walked into our apartment off the street, you wouldn’t have seen any indication that we believed . . . anything. Except maybe the Bible on the nightstand . . . maybe. But there was no physical evidence that we were Christians. Growing up, we weren’t explicitly taught that the physical was bad but the mindset we were grafted into took on a form of dualism. “The body and the material universe is bad. Earth isn’t our home.** The spiritual is good.” And so, in our formative years we naturally misunderstood, and poked fun at,—Lord, have mercy—any kind of Christianity that incorporated the physical world. (In retrospect, I can see how it was so easy for me, upon reading Plato, to accept the theory of forms and a dualistic view of the world.)
But not any more.
I had two thoughts. The first was to get a picture of Christ to hang in my living room as a visible representation of His presence. I didn’t want one of those soft, happy-go-lucky pictures of a hipster-model-looking shepherd, I wanted something real. The style I had in mind turned out to be that of iconography—this is before I even knew what an icon was. The second thought was to get a cross to put around my neck. These two thoughts thrust me into a third: Christianity has been around for a really long time surely someone has already thought of this. And so I began searching to find out what early Christians did to abide in Christ.
This catapulted me into a study of the history of Christianity—something I’d never ventured to read into before. I was shocked. Why hadn’t I read the history of my own faith before now? For being somewhat well read, I was caught with my pants down when it came to Christian history and the Church Fathers. Up to that point, I had always naively thought that after the apostles died the church fell into serious disarray until Luther. What I found, however, was astounding, encouraging, and eye-opening. There were schisms and heresies circulating in the early church for sure, but the Church was never overcome by the gates of hades.1
Why hasn’t anyone told me about the history of Christianity? I asked myself. Why hasn’t anyone told me about the Church Fathers? What amazed me even more was how little I really knew about my own faith. And so I read. And kept reading. And then I read some more. It wasn’t dry facts about dead bishops that captivated me. On the contrary, as I began reading the lives of the saints and how they lived, worshiped, and prayed, I felt the presence of the very saints, about whom I was reading, pulling me closer to Christ.2
It became readily apparent, from the historical point of view, that there were only two options: the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. So I began learning as much as I could about the two Churches. What captivated me about the Eastern Church was the balance between the rational and the experiential. Around this time, my wife, son, and I were invited to dinner with an Orthodox priest and his wife. I’d seen Fr. Gregory a few times before. My parents were really good friends with him—my father met him on a missions trip about a year prior to my interest in Church history—and we all went to dinner together. I wasn’t planning on saying anything, but about three-quarters of the way through the meal my mom turned to Fr. Gregory and said, “I think Ben has a question for you about the Orthodox Church.” I am eternally grateful that she said this because it sparked a conversation with Fr. Gregory that would continue, through email and regular meetings, for over a year.
Fr. Gregory responded to my questions and suggested books about the Orthodox faith. Our email correspondence spans over a hundred printed pages—in the future I hope to publish these emails on Conciliar Post under the title “Conversations with an Orthodox Priest.” The Orthodox Faith was vibrant and had a lot to offer. The fact that it has withstood the test of time really spoke to me. The Orthodox Church still worships and encourages parishioners to live, with minor adjustments of course, as it did 2000 years ago.
And this is where it began to get real.
As I looked at how a Christian should live in order to keep Christ the focus of their life, I realized I needed to begin practicing what I read instead of merely ruminating on it. So I began waking up to say morning prayers and in the evening Mallory and I would stand together for evening prayers. Fr. Gregory had given me a prayer rope—black wool with 100 knots—and told me about the Jesus Prayer: Lord, Jesus Christ, Son of God have mercy on me, a sinner. And I began practicing it as well. This affected a major change in me. We began attending the Orthodox Church where Fr. Gregory was priest—which at that point was an hour away—as we continued to read about Orthodoxy.
As I continued to participate in daily prayers throughout the week and in the Divine Liturgy on Sundays—though at that point not being able to go forward for to participate in the Eucharist—the doctrines I once mocked became clearer and clearer. It wasn’t as much a rational explication of the doctrines that convinced me of their truth but rather an experience of them. (Though I didn’t neglect the rational by any means—a healthy balance of both is necessary.) It was the fact that I was changing, by God’s grace, through the practice of daily prayers, participation in the Liturgy, reverencing the icons, and fasting. There was something very real happening to me. I later found out that I was—and by God’s grace still am—being healed.
The Orthodox Church views Christianity and the gospel, not as a courtroom but, as a hospital. I would like to talk about this view more in a later article but for now it will suffice to say that through participation in the life of the Church and reading, I underwent a significant change in how I viewed the world. Suddenly, everything began to be an opportunity to give thanks to God. The presence of Christ pervaded everything. The world took on a different meaning; I began,—I say began and I am still beginning—for the first time in my life, to love other people. I wasn’t as angry all the time. My wife and I began to resolve conflict much faster. Overall, it was incredibly encouraging to see that what the Church was offering to me was working.
We were participating in the Church as much as we could. But that wasn’t enough. It was necessary, in my mind, that we convert so that we could participate fully in the life of the Church. I expressed this desire to Mallory and she too felt like it was the right thing to do—although she didn’t feel the imperative as much as I.
From what I’ve read, and from people I’ve spoken to, it is typically much more difficult for women to convert from protestantism to Orthodoxy than men. When asked, Mallory responded, “Well at first I just thought this was another phase. But when he began praying and participating in the Church and he stopped swearing and punching holes in the wall, I thought there may be something to this Orthodox thing.” She also mentioned that it was encouraging to see that worship wasn’t based on stylistic preference (strange fire, maybe?). When we enter the Church and participate in the liturgy we are stepping out of time and into the kingdom where the king is being worshiped 24/7. We step into this worship, together with the saints and the angels who are always worshipping, as often as we can. The Liturgical calendar has been set up to help us participate in this manner, in the kingdom. By participating in the Liturgical cycle the Church takes us on a journey. This journey is a rhythmic pattern of daily prayers, the iconic significance of sleeping (death) rising from sleep (resurrection), weekly fasting, the Eucharist on Sunday (the 8th day), and extended periods of fasting throughout the year—as a preparation for the feasts (Nativity, Pascha, etc.).
A Few Other Things that Struck Us About Orthodoxy
Even though we didn’t know it before our journey to Orthodoxy, we both had a very impoverished Christianity—and an impoverished view of the world. Unbeknownst to myself, I was a deist (God created and then walked away from the world). I regarded God to be “the man upstairs” and humans to be “downstairs.” Fr. Stephen Freeman talks about this misunderstanding of Christianity in his book Everywhere Present where he calls it a “two-story universe.” One result of this way of thinking—even if it’s not cognizant—is banishing God from the world (in a very physical sense). When we do this what is left are “four walls and a sermon.” The reality is, however, that the whole world is held together by God, and God works through the created world to affect our salvation. Any decent theology about the incarnation will recognize this—although the natural implications of this aren’t always accepted.
Orthodox worship was formed (after the resurrection of Christ) based on these implications: on the fact that we are physical and spiritual beings. It is the soul and the body that compose the human, not one or the other but both together. This being so, it’s important that we use both in worship. In the Eastern Church we use candles, icons, and incense. We bow, prostrate, and kiss. We baptize our children and allow them to take the Eucharist—because rational understanding is not necessary for salvation but participation in Christ is. All of these things are based on the reality that Christianity is an experiential reality and, as human beings, the gospel is not merely an ethereal, rational truth. All of these things bound up together affected a major paradigm shift in our Western mind. All of these things were contributing factors in our conversion.
On Sunday, September 15, 2013, two years after we began searching, we were brought into full communion with the Orthodox Church. The story has many other facets to it as well—at the beginning of those two years unbeknownst to us Fr. Gregory, feeling called by God to our area, sent a letter to His Bishop requesting to start a mission (Orthodox term for a church plant) in Southwest Michigan. Two years later, alongside us being brought into the Church, on September 15, 2013 we held our first Divine Liturgy, which was served by Fr. Gregory, at the Orthodox Mission in Southwestern Michigan currently known as Holy Resurrection.
In summation there are a few things I’d like to say. This account of our conversion from protestantism to Eastern Orthodox Christianity is just one of many. As others have said, I feel like the journey is just now beginning. I do not want to give you the impression that we are perfect little Christians now that we have converted. Far from it. In fact, things actually got much harder after our conversion. But healing is possible; and it is Christ, the healer, whom we seek.
I would like to highlight again that I am not trying to set forward a systematic defense of the dogmas of the Orthodox Church. This being the case I would also like to affirm that doctrine is very important and, having also looked at things rationally, Orthodoxy not only works it also holds up under scrutiny. I affirm and accept the Orthodox faith and doctrine in its entirety—and where doctrines of other traditions vary, I believe it is an aberration from the truth revealed through the Church. For there are beliefs I now hold that, when I was a protestant, I once mocked—and at this I am ashamed. So what convinced me otherwise? It was participation in the life of the Church and experience of these things—tied tandem, of course, with a healthy and balanced intellectual search as well. For Christianity is something you must experience and participate in, not something you can speak about from a distance.
In closing I ask that you pray to God for me, His servant, that he may have mercy on me and my family and remember us in His kingdom. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit to whom be all glory, honor, and worship, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
When this experience is communicated, however, the listener (or reader in this case) can participate in that person’s journey.
** The Orthodox affirm that human beings were made for earth and so the earth is our home; it will be restored at the end of all things.