A Pilgrimage from West to East and back to the West Again.
by Gregory Theophan Hoffman
As far as I can remember, I have always been a seeker for “something more:” Something more than what I had, what was offered, and what I knew.
I have always been an idealist to one degree or another, despite my own inconsistencies. As early as twelve years of age, I first joined a group of friends in experimenting with the dark side of the occult. This did not last very long, since I was quickly frightened away into a seemingly more benign form of occultism and began experimenting with Hinduism as well. This search also included the regular use of recreational drugs, yet not all of the drugs were simply recreational. I truly believed that hallucinogens were part of a certain spirituality and I embraced both it and them.
In December of 1978, God revealed Himself to me in a way that was indisputable and very personal. After this encounter, all I knew was that the Bible contained the answers to the questions I was seeking and that my current path would lead to futility and emptiness. Immediately, I began reading the Bible and could not get enough.
I lived in Las Vegas, Nevada at the time, though my conversion occurred in California while visiting my parents. I was 18 years old. Fundamentalism One day, while reading my Bible and praying I received a phone call from what I believed was a Jesus Freak and did everything I could think of to get him off the phone, including lying to him. Within a short time I realized he knew the Bible better than I did and quickly began learning from him and the senior pastor of Liberty Baptist Church. One family took me under their wing and I was very soon a believer in the sense of the Fundamentalist movement within the Baptist culture.
My life was pretty much consumed with studying, asking questions and receiving answers. After a short membership in another Baptist Church I moved back to California.
What I did not mention was, a combination of arrogance and obnoxiousness on my part and my Dad’s Jewish background, made my first year very difficult in ways that run very deep. After my return to California I was able to reestablish my relationship with my family in person. Due to their patience and my eventual growing up, our relationship is closer today than it has ever been, though we still do not share religious convictions.
Here, There and Back Again
I began attending a very well-known evangelical church in the San Fernando Valley. This church satisfied my intellectual side, but left something empty in me. After being invited to a well-known Charismatic (Four Square) church I seemed to find the missing element, but was still missing, but I could not put my finger on it.
Though I was immersed in Bible study, teaching, a street ministry and taking in the homeless, I was still left lacking. After attending three very different Dispensational Protestant (Evangelical) churches I finally landed where I first began. This church had something like a seminary for lay people and I enrolled.
I learned much during this time, though, eventually I had to unlearn almost everything but Greek and Biblical Theology. During this time I also met my future wife of 26 years and began a Pastoral Internship in a Missionary Denomination Church (sister to the Missionary Alliance), after which I was ordained in 1984. Our church had decided when it reached a certain number, we would plant another Church in another city. My wife and I became part of this mission and moved to Santa Clarita, Ca. Up until now, the most influential persons in my life were Francis Schaeffer and Keith Green, but this was soon to change.
The Intermediate State
The senior pastor decided to begin a series of teaching on prophecy and, as my practice was, I began my own parallel study. Very quickly I discovered that the “rapture,” and the entire way of looking at end times was not found in the Scriptures.
It seemed like we were using a “mechanic approach” to interpretation – that is, taking particular verses from the Bible doing whatever we needed to make them fit the engine of our eschatology. I had also crossed another line out of Dispensationalism. A friend notified me one night after a discussion that I was a Theonomist. I asked him what that meant – and sure enough – I am a Theonomist. A Theonomist believes that if God said something in the O.T. it remains valid and standing unless modified in the N.T., whereas Dispensationalism teaches that if a subject is not repeated in the N.T. it is not relevant for the “Church age.”
I was very quickly in a kind of limbo, my eschatology hanging in the balance. For six months I could not make up my mind between Post-millenarianism and A-millenarianism.
After this grueling period I had finally become convinced of the former. This period was very grueling mostly because whatever I decided would mean me leaving our church and having an impact positive or negative on those I was responsible for, as well as friends. I eventually turned in my resignation.
I had been a guest speaker and substitute pastor at a local Presbyterian Church (PCA) and began attending, but soon the Lord brought us to a place where we were no longer satisfied with what was lacking in modern expressions of the faith (modern=1516 forward). My major influences were Drs. Greg Bahnsen, John Rushdoony, Ray Sutton and Gary North.
On The Way Home
A group of us began a house church with the express mission to study and implement what we could determine the first Christians believed and practiced. In a short time we realized that there was no such thing as an “independent Church” in the Bible, but did not know where to turn. As God would have it, our little group became known to a conservative jurisdiction of the Anglican/Episcopal Church, and my ministerial credentials were transferred.
After one year my pastor, the Arch-Deacon of the Western jurisdiction was relieved from his parish for what later turned out to be false accusations. He had also been studying the primary documents of the early church and transferred to the Antiochian Archdiocese of the Orthodox Church.
With him many, many also made the pilgrimage. Almost every Pastor was in our district converted to Orthodoxy except for me. Of course, I was invited to go with them, but I knew nothing of the Eastern Orthodox Church at the time and asked them to send me literature. I was not convinced by the answers they gave me and was convinced that the Anglican jurisdiction I was in was just as valid. I continued studying my Bible and the Church Fathers, searching for the early Church. After 8 years as a deacon serving as a priest (Though an irregular assignment from the bishop), I was transferred to a new parish beginning in my home town. During this time, my priest told me
“Your Eastern lung is overdeveloped. You need to develop your Western lung.”
So I did – I went as far west as I could, to the land of the Celts. What I discovered there was the same Church I found in the East, especially among the Desert Fathers of Egypt, Palestine and Syria (3rd-9th C.). Not only did I find essentially the same church, but one that stressed the ideal, not only for monks, but for the average lay Christian. This Celtic Church of the early middle ages has become known to historians as a “Monastic Church.” This was the last nail in my coffin.
I could figuratively die in peace with Christ in order to rise with Him in a rejuvenated, complete way with solutions to pursuing the ideal. Ever since then, the early Celtic Church has been of special interest to me on all levels. I had also been introduced to Sts. John Cassian, John Climacus, Columcille (of Ireland and Iona) and Theophan the Recluse and fell in love with them.
In fact, between these, it was very difficult for me to choose a Saint name when I was later received into the Orthodox Church. My mission in the Anglican world was to reintroduce this kind of Christianity and received the blessing from my bishop to pursue a kind of lay ascetical community called The Society of The Wilderness, later changed to the Community of Saint Columcille. I had decided to transfer my membership to the Orthodox Church, but first agreed to give a trial period in the Anglican Mission in America, which I did.
We wanted more than anything to be surrounded by the Orthodox Ethos in its fullest and soon our little group served as this kind of spiritual insulation for us. As the Anglican world continued its downward spiral, remaining in it became harder and harder. But I could not just get up and leave – I was responsible for those under my care. So we waited, and waited and waited. Finally, with the blessing of our bishop and priest, we were
“released to obey God and become members of the Orthodox Church.”
Not only my family, but those who also wished to join us! Our last service together was on a Christmas eve. It was truly wonderful! They took up a love offering and sent us away with gifts and prayers. I had never even imagined this kind of thing would happen, but we waited for God’s timing, despite the trials, and God did things His way in His time.
Our investigation and eventual membership in the Orthodox Church had nothing to do with the usual conversion subjects. Ours was an issue of spiritual hunger, spiritual formation, and Orthodox ethos.
For many years I wanted what the Orthodox Church had to offer, but I could not enter into it fully until I became one of her members. I had sent correspondence to an OCA parish inquiring regarding our next step.
On Christmas morning, Fr. N_____ telephoned. It was truly like St. Nicolas delivering gifts on the morning of the Incarnation!
Knowing my own hypocrisy and unworthiness, I decided not to apply for reordination. To this day I continue as a layman serving God. This is my story, or rather, God’s story from 1978 until the present. As mentioned, I have a wonderful wife for 26 years now and 6 beautiful children who are almost all grown at this time.
Since “arriving home,” I no longer need to worry about all the variations in both theology and practice which serve as continual sources of angst among Protestant and Anglican Christians. Now that I am home, I have found the contemporary expression of that early Church of both the East and the West. Certain priests have been very supportive to my family and I and helped me through some difficult periods of adjusting to my new status.
When I left the Anglican world, I left everything behind that I had worked and hoped for concerning career and vocation. Since my first conversion in 1978 I wanted nothing except to serve God in His church full time. In the AMiA it came close to this, but some things are more important than others, or some dreams are more important than other dreams. In the Orthodox Church my most important dreams are coming to pass.
The men of God who have helped me in my transition deserve special recognition, these are: Frs. Nicolas Boldireff, Paul Waisanen, Josiah Trenham and Yousuf Rassam. May God grant them many years and overflowing blessings.