Since being received into the Church, I have tried to ponder and process the long road we took to become Orthodox. Truthfully, I was not sure I wanted to share our story because, in so many ways, it is similar to hundreds of other stories posted on Journey to Orthodoxy and elsewhere. But looking back, when I recall being unsure about the path upon which I was just starting, Journey to Orthodoxy provided both information and comfort. Peace was found in seeing that there were others who had trod this narrow path to the fullness of the Faith. So, to whomever reads this, know that you are not alone and there are others travelling in the same direction.
Secondly, and mostly because of the nature of my work, I must be somewhat vague and anonymous regarding certain personal details (names, city, parish, etc.). Forgive me for this.
Finally, I must say this. I read Journey to Orthodoxy, other Orthodox sites, books, and other various literature for over a year before I ever set foot in an Orthodox church. In the case of Holy Orthodoxy, knowledge is useful only insomuch as it leads to action. Consider the individual who knows all about baseball. He watches hundreds of games per year, can name the starting lineup for all 30 Major League teams, knows stats for this season and seasons past, and can tell you virtually everything there is to know about each Hall of Fame player. But consider how much this person would miss if were to never set foot on a baseball diamond. Even Little League or High School experience would garner infinitely more insight than reading stats or watching games could ever provide him.
In the same manner, Orthodoxy must be experienced. Come and see.
My wife and I were both raised in evangelical protestant traditions, mine Baptist and hers a more conservative Methodism than what is common today. Both of us gravitated toward a Calvinist tradition while in college and, once married, landed in a conservative Presbyterian denomination which is where we stayed until our conversion to Orthodoxy.
While we embraced the neat, logical, systematic Calvinist theology I would have never considered myself terribly hardline. There is a vocal minority within Calvinist and Reformed circles that argue that God is a wrathful, vengeful, and even hateful (not kidding) being looking to smite or redeem people based upon nothing but His own whims. While these are the most vocal proponents of that particular tradition, my experience is that most people in Reformed churches and circles are far more gracious. I make this point to note that most Calvinists do not actually take their theological system to its logical conclusion because to do so is so egregious that, at a base level, it goes against our very nature as beings created in the image of God.
Eventually, I found that I could no longer embrace Calvinism because I could no longer embrace one of the pillars upon which it stands: Sola Scriptura. I feel that, more than anything else, this Pillar of the Reformation has led to 30,000 different denominations, often based upon one man’s personal interpretation of a particular biblical book, chapter, or even verse. It’s important to note that it’s not as if once had a high view of scripture and then, one day, had a low of view of scripture.
Instead, my high view of scripture remained (and continues to remain) intact while simultaneously seeing the need for Holy Tradition to provide context for Scripture and, in turn, for the Church itself. In other words, certainly individual books in the Bible have particular contexts and those contexts are important for study. But to understand the whole of Scripture, it became clear that it must be seen through the lens of the Church.
It was at this point that I realized my Protestant worldview was crumbling. At the same time, I never doubted Christ and his resurrection. I shared my struggles my wife and while she was not necessarily dealing with those same issues, she recognized the validity of my struggles and was willing to walk alongside me as I worked through things.
For some time, we had in one way or another always found ourselves crossing paths with a local Orthodox priest. He was friendly and kind, never pushy, and always had time to talk to us. These run-ins had been going on for probably a year until finally, on our way home from our Presbyterian church, my wife and I decided something needed to change. Long story short, we got in touch with our priest-friend and asked if we could visit his parish. I’ll always remember his response because it felt so personal. He was going to be out of town for about a week so he asked us to wait and come to a Vespers service the next week. His rationale was simply,
“I want to host you.”
Coming from a large church where we had never even met the senior pastor, the personal touch was nice. The long and short is that we came for what we thought would be a visit but, as it turned out, we never again went back to our Protestant church.
A Supernatural Experience
I must break the chronological order to share an experience – and I am hesitant to even share because I don’t want my experience to seem normative. But at the same time, in Orthodoxy what we would characterize as supernatural events are considered normal (for lack of a better word) events that are for our salvation – now, whether or not they happen directly to you is neither here nor there; the point is that they do, in fact, happen. Thus, I feel compelled to tell my experience while adding the caveat that I do hope that you will not feel you need “a sign” to recognize the truth and beauty of the Orthodox Church.
In my early 20s, I was going through a fairly tough, albeit common, existential struggle faced by those about to graduate college. I had no real direction, no real purpose – all things our society tells us we are supposed to have figured out by 22 – and, as such, I was dealing with some anxiety and depression. Up to this point, I had been someone for whom things just worked out. Good grades, friends, and even good times all came easily. But during my senior year of college, life just became harder.
In the midst of a particularly trying few months, I had a dream one night: I was outside of my home, looked up in the sky, and saw a vision of Christ. I awoke and, for the first time in my life, truly felt a
“peace that surpasses all understanding.”
I didn’t understand why it gave me peace but I quietly held onto this experience all the while navigating my way through a Protestant tradition that de-emphasizes this kind of supernatural experience calling it “extra-biblical revelation.”
More than a decade later, I first set foot in an Orthodox Church. I walked around admiring the beauty, the icons, and the architecture. Upon finding myself in the center of the Nave I looked up and there it was: the image I had seen in a dream so many years prior was the Christ Pantocrator icon which adorns the interior dome of nearly every Orthodox Church. Upon realizing that the image from my dream and the Icon above me were the same, I knew I God had led me here.
After our first Vespers, we regularly attended services for about a liturgical year. We did all of the things you were supposed to do:
(1) show up,
(2) attend catechism classes if available, and
(3) start adopting an Orthodox lifestyle inasmuch as it’s possible.
We went through our first great Lent and then Pascha came. Needless to say, Pascha in an Orthodox Church was unlike any Easter celebration in the tradition in which we had grown up. It was the greatest celebration, for anything, we had ever experienced. On top of that, it happens every year! So, if I recall, the next day we got in touch with Father and asked to become catachumens.
Our time as catachumens was spent in preparation. Fr. Stephen Freeman, who I have not met but whose writings have been extraordinarily influential in my life, has said that 90% of Orthodoxy is just showing up. And so, as catachumens that is exactly what we did. We went to church as much as possible, rarely missing a liturgy. And, as work (and sometimes children) allowed, we attended vespers and for feast days. Over time, we started to feel and understand (to a very small extent) the rhythms of the church and the liturgical year.
Without much earthly fanfare, we were received into the Holy Orthodox Church via Baptism. It was not Holy Saturday and there really was not even a feast-day to connect it to. But, for us, it is now a family feast day, of sorts. My daughter was very young at the time so she is not technically cradle Orthodox, though she will never know anything different. Since being received into the church, we have welcomed another child who, glory to God, was also received into the Church via Baptism.
Among my favorite points in Orthodox doctrine is the welcoming of children. There is no nursery (in most churches) and families receive the very Body and Blood of our Lord together. Children are full members of the Church with all the rights and privileges of any other member. Modern Christianity has told us that children cannot fully participate in the life of the Church because they are not saved, have not reached the age of accountability, have not been confirmed, do not have a proper understanding, etc. Rather, Jesus himself bids the little children to come to him and in the Orthodox Church they, quite literally, do just that via the Eucharist at every Divine Liturgy.
First and foremost, I would like to speak to the person who is investigating Orthodoxy by reading books, keeping up with Journey to Orthodoxy, and listening to Podcasts. Why? Because that was me! I bid you to come and see. Call or email your local priest. Heck, just show up! Not every parish is ornate, but they are all beautiful. Not every choir is excellent, but they are all heavenly. Not every priest is well-spoken, but they all minister to the soul. Why is this so? Because when you step into an Orthodox Church, you step into the very real presence of Christ.
I cannot say this enough: go. Just go.
I will conclude with one last experience. Shortly before being received into the Church, you give a life confession. It’s typically a longer confession that serves a number of purposes from ensuring your heart is in the right place for reception to putting you and your Spiritual Father on the same page for future confessions. My life confession was neither terribly drawn out nor terribly emotional. It highlighted some moral and spiritual failings and gave my Spiritual Father some insight into what I struggle with.
Though I was 99% sure joining the Church was the right decision for me and for my family, I still harbored some small shadow of doubt somewhere in the reaches of my mind. Upon leaving my confession, I got into my car and turned on my music and a song by an Anglican singer/songwriter was queued up first (note: most of her music is not even considered contemporary Christian). Now, this was not planned and I certainly do not think her intent when she wrote the lyric was aimed at those considering Orthodoxy, but driving out of the church parking lot, I heard this line:
“My Body and my Blood, the healing that you need, come and receive. Welcome Home…”
Welcome home, indeed.