by Fr. Seraphim Holland
I am a convert to Orthodoxy, and the next Holy Saturday (in 1996) will be the 16th anniversary of my baptism. I am an Orthodox priest, having been ordained just before Great Lent, this year (1995) after having been a deacon for 5 years. I am married, and have four children, Genevieve:14, Christina:11, Tim:8 and Natalie:5. My Matushka is Marina. I serve in the Mission parish of St. Nicholas, a community under the omophorion of Bishop Hilarion of Washington, in the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia. Our community is almost entirely convert in makeup, and all of our services are in English.
I was raised Roman Catholic, with an unbelieving father (who subscribed to the “Man Upstairs” kind of “God” so many Americans believe in, and just thinks you need to be “good” to go to heaven). I saw many inconsistencies and lukewarmness among the Roman Catholics, and when I was a certain age (13?), my mother did not require me to go to church.
I was not a believer, but I was searching. I went to college, studying pre-med, and later switched to chemistry. I had a great desire to “make a difference”, but had reached a crisis, because I saw how temporal life was. I was fortunate to get a summer scholarship to do chemistry research, and lived at Purdue that summer, rooming with a “Navigator”.
The Navigators are a Protestant “Para Church” organization, with “Protestant Evangelical” Theology. He was a wonderful guy, and may God have mercy on him. He was used to plant a seed. We talked a lot, I read the bible a lot. As an almost last ditch effort, the Evil One so flummoxed me that at one point I wondered if God even existed. This was just for a moment, because the thought of atheism is ludicrous, given the evidence of God, which He put within us, and everywhere.
I prayed, thought, did research, and played a lot of basketball. When I came home, I had a “Protestant” conversion experience, akin to the way Campus Crusade for Christ incorrectly presents a *small part* of the story in their “4 Spiritual Laws“. I was all by myself, in my room, late at night.
I changed, or rather, the Holy Spirit helped me to change. I cannot say what I “was” at that point. According to Evangelical thought, I was “saved”. I know now that this was the beginning of the path to Holy Orthodoxy, which I had never heard of.
I went back to school for my junior year, and went to the campus’ Roman Catholic Church. They were wonderful folks. I went on retreats, and got to know two of the priests, and other folks really well. I was unhappy though, because they did not think the same as I did. All that I was learning and feeling – it did not connect with my experiences with them. When I attended a mass in which “liturgical dance” was used to express “worship”, I knew I had to go.
I attended two campus fellowships, in an order I don’t remember. One was charismatic/Pentecostal, and was called “The Upper Room”. I loved the folks there, but never bought into the Pentecostal doctrines about tongues. They seemed willing to let their *experiences* rule in this area, even though they were insistent on using the bible as the only source of doctrine in all others.
For a long time, I puzzled over this inconsistency, and am sure that this was part of my “road to Orthodoxy”, as it helped me to formulate THE QUESTION, which I will describe soon.
I also attended and participated in another Evangelical fellowship. The most I remember about this place is that they once had a service with a rock band, and played the kinda-sorta Christian songs from the Doobie Brothers.
Contemporaneous with all this was my involvement with Campus Crusade for Christ. I owe them a great debt, although they don’t see it that way. First off, I met my wife to be there. She introduced me to the Orthodox Church, as she was nominal Orthodox, but really a “nondenominational Protestant” in her outlook. She was excited to find out that I wanted to go to church in Indianapolis with her.
I can still remember the first day that I was at an Orthodox liturgy. I was starting to feel the coldness of the Protestant belief, and was looking for the total truth that I was feeling that Protestantism was lacking. This was actually an unformed expression of THE QUESTION.
The service was different, the prayer more sober – it expressed what I was really feeling in my soul.
They understood that God should be addressed with reverence, and that we should often ask Him for mercy! I was on an *intellectual* mission, but was smitten when I heard and experienced Orthodox worship. It was so *balanced*. I was associated with a lot of very evangelical folks, and really wanted to win souls for Christ (and still do). I was upset however, that it seemed that “winning souls” was all that was important to my peer group. I was further upset that their whole intent was to get intellectual assent from people, then turn them loose.
They did not work much on themselves. They did not think very much about the passions, except in a superficial way. They all believed in “eternal security”, which seemed to me to be a foolish belief, as they expressed it. Since they were “saved”, they did not ask God for *mercy*. I was feeling at that time how merciful God really is, and how much we need his mercy.
All I heard in Protestant circles was off-the-cuff praise, hymns, and prayers used in an evangelistic context. I still needed to WORK on myself. Everyone was telling me I was SAVED, but I didn’t believe it. I felt I was BEING saved, because of God’s great mercy. I was not quite ready to ignore my own passions and fulfill the “Great Commission”. These Orthodox people seemed to have different priorities – and they matched my still forming Christian consciousness much better.
When I heard how many times the Orthodox sing “Lord have mercy”, and the other beautiful prayers, I was overwhelmed. I had come home. It took another 9 months before I was Orthodox, because I still quite foolishly tried to prove or disprove Orthodoxy by intellectual research, even though something deep within me had been touched by the Holy Spirit in a way I knew I could never explain, or understand. I embarked on a period of study (too much) and prayer (too little) to prove whether Orthodox was the one true church. This leads me to THE QUESTION.
THE QUESTION: Our Lord and Savior promised His Apostles, and by context, and through them, all Christians that He would send the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, Who would lead them (and us) into ALL TRUTH. (St. John). This promise indicates that there is a source of truth, and that the Apostles were entrusted with it. If this is the case, then one should be able to locate the descendants of those very apostles, and be assured that one is believing the TRUTH. Christendom has been shattered into so many sects and beliefs, including not a few ugly heresies.
Where is the truth? How does one find it? Some look only to the bible, and the amount of varying doctrines using that very same bible are as great as the sands of the sea. Where is the order? God is simple, and orderly. Would He not have a church that reflects this order and simplicity? If there is one true visible and invisible (of course) church, then a lot of people are wrong. It seems that the only way to find the truth is to find this church.
Where is it? Can it be found? It must be there, because Christ promised us that the Holy Spirit would lead us to ALL TRUTH. Certainly the Baptists and the Methodists, and the Pentecostals, and the nondenominational (arguably, an oxymoron), etc., all cannot have it. At least everyone save one is wrong. Where is the *one*?
I pursued the answer to this question vigorously. By the end of the second term (when I had met Marina, and THE QUESTION was formulated), I had not resolved it, and was still sufficiently entrenched in Campus Crusade to have signed up for a three month Evangelistic tour in Wildwood, NJ. I lived in a big rooming house with lots of other folks, worked all day at a campground to earn my bread, and either evangelized on the beach or boardwalk at night, or attended worship services, bible studies, and discipleship sessions. I averaged about three to four hours sleep a night.
During this time, I was plagued by THE QUESTION, and prayed much about it. I also studied, from books I had checked out of the library back home (there were big fines when I returned!). The books were mostly from Protestant authors who were giving their slant to history, or modernist Orthodox authors who did not sound any different on a fundamental level than the Protestants. I did not know enough to have access to really good quality Orthodox Literature, with one exception. I had a prayer book. This book had morning prayers and the like, and I forced myself to use them.
Although I had Roman Catholic roots, I had become rather iconoclastic and although I agreed in principle with “prayers to the saints”, I did not *really* want to do it. This was not doubt because of the misapplication of the (true) “I am the Way the Truth and the Life” doctrine. People found out about my prayers, and I became the official nut case in the house. My discipler, a wonderful man called Jim Dunn, thought I was apostatizing. We had long conversations, which seemed to me to be harangues, and I grew farther apart from my peers. I can hear his complaints even now: “But if Jesus is Your Savior, why do you need to prayer to the Saints? They can’t save you”. “Why do you want to talk about Mary so much. This is idolatry”. “Didn’t you invite Christ into your heart? What is all this talk about not being saved yet?”.
I had been to the mountain (of Protestant Evangelical doctrine and experience), and my soul KNEW there was something higher. My last month in the house was miserable, because I was no longer a believer according to my peers.
Upon returning to school, there was one last temptation to overcome. This one has a funny twist to it. Marina and I were at the “looking at china” stage, but I was adamant that I would not marry her unless I became Orthodox, and I was adamant that I would not become Orthodox to marry her! This was really a bit of sophistry on the part of the Evil One. After all, I loved her, and I loved the Orthodox church. I think I just did not want to *appear* that I converted just to marry her. Fortunately, at some point, Glory be to God, I just believed. Completely.
On Holy Saturday, 1980, I was baptized and chrismated. I had insisted upon baptism, although I was given the “option”. Shortly thereafter, we were married, the day after the end of the Spring Session.
Upon further reflection, I believe that the *beauty* of Orthodoxy is what attracted me. The discordance of competing Protestant beliefs are ugly to me, and the reliance on doctrine and de-emphasis of worship, liturgical expression, and ascetical endeavor always left me feeling a little hollow. God IS beautiful, and His church reflects Him.
There is so much *beauty* in Orthodoxy that I do not see in Protestantism, and Orthodox are also quite far away from the neo-platonist tendencies of some Protestants.
Some emphasize reason so much that they seem to forget that man has a body and a soul, and that God, who is totally free and beautiful, having made man in His image, has given man an inherent love for beauty. The Orthodox, worship God *naturally*, and not just with cold blooded reason, but also with their God given feelings and intuition.
In Orthodoxy, a man is not “saved” in an event. He is transformed, and is like a sapling that grows towards the light, and he loves God more and more, because “He first loved us”. Because of his love for God, and his ascetical struggles (to win the kingdom of Heaven by violence), God helps to change him, and his will slowly, imperceptibly conforms to the perfect will of God. He becomes like God; he shares in the energy of God. We call this process “theosis”, and this is salvation. It is not just intellectual assent, and it is not just ascetical endeavor, which some call “works”. It is a synergy of the two. The first follows the other, and the other empowers a man to do the first.
Fr. Seraphim Holland
Edwin Smith says
I could relate so well to much of your story, having been on a Campus Crusade for Christ summer project (I was even on staff briefly) as well as other things like your fellowship with the charismatic group. It took me quite a few more years to find my way to Orthodoxy, but I shared many of your same misgivings about evangelicalism even back in my college days. I remember talking to my action group leader as a freshman about “how was it decided what would compose the New Testament?” He told me about the Church Fathers and I thought “man, we are really trusting those guys with a lot. What were they like?” I found enough of an answer to that question to mistakenly realize that there were no longer any Christians truly resembling them. I knew they were quite different from the Catholics as well as the many Protestant groups with which I was familiar. I had heard of Eastern Orthodoxy, but knew far to little about it to recognize it in the church of the fathers. I decided to accept the Bible, at least for the sake of argument, because I believed Christianity was real and there was widespread acceptance of the Bible among Christians. However, I never felt really comfortable about it.