by Clifton Healy
Despite my best efforts to care for my wife’s spiritual needs as well as to heed the very clear call from God to prioritize faith and discipleship, I frequently failed to accomplish much of either. On 9 February 2003, I was back at All Saints again. And once again, I was confronted with another “St. Anthony moment.” This time it was the Matins Gospel, John 21:15-25. Here I was Peter, being asked of Christ,
“Do you love me more than these?”
I was not being called to trample on my wife’s sensibilities. I was not called to “go it alone” into the Orthodox Church. But I was called to put Christ first, to focus my heart and mind on his will, and not worry myself about the interim details.
At this time there was no indications that the standoff, of sorts, that existed between Anna and I regarding the Orthodox Church was anywhere near resolution or further compromise. I could understand Anna’s frustration. From where she was at, there was no decent church which we could attend–without driving all the way out to the suburbs. She would do some research and come up with some names of congregations.
But when I investigated further we found problems. Of the, to me, more minor sort: a worship style that did not suit Anna’s preferences (though, clearly, this was–and is–a major issue for Anna); a staff that did not return phone calls or emails of potential visitors.
Of the more major variety: serious questions regarding particular churches’ teachings on faith and morality. It seemed the wider we cast our net, the more deeply we looked into a specific congregation, the more trouble we found.
In my own experience, the only acceptable parish–in terms of doctrinal and moral teaching alone–was All Saints parish. And that, of course, was problematic for Anna.
So, I continued, as often as I could and maintain homestead harmony, to return to All Saints. The start of Great Lent, in March 2003, was extremely powerful for me. I participated in my first Forgiveness Vespers. I prayed, for the first time, the Great Canon of St. Andrew. And I experienced my first Pre-Sanctified Liturgy. In fact, it was at that last that I also for the first time had both the understanding as well as something of the experience of the presence of the saints with us as we worship God.
But with Anna’s brother, Delane, in the hospital, and our visits there to see him, with the demands of being a full-time student, teaching two classes at two different colleges, and working half-time, the rest of Lent quickly passed. I was busy, distracted and torn in many directions.
Pascha came, and one other first was added to my experience of Orthodoxy. Cognizant of my Lenten failures, when St. John Chrysostom called even me, one who had not kept the fast, who had not lived faithfully, to the Feast, I nearly wept. It was, by far, the single most powerful worship service in which I had ever participated.
For some months, it had been my practice, after praying Morning Prayers on Saturday mornings, to immediately pray the rosary. After Pascha, in mid-May, on a Saturday–as it happened, the one preceding Mother’s Day, though the consciousness of that does not yet enter the story–I prayed the rosary and asked the intercessions of the Theotokos. The one request I made specifically while praying the rosary was that Anna would see fit to accompany me to All Saints for the Divine Liturgy the next day.
Let me remind you of some facts: Anna had been resolutely opposed to the Orthodox Church for some months. She had only visited an Orthodox Church on two occasions, both in 2001. I’m not sure why I asked the Blessed Virgin to pray that Anna would go to church with me. I don’t recall any positive indicators.
In any case, we ran errands all that Saturday, buying a few hundred dollars’ worth of baby stuff at the outlet malls north of Chicago. It wasn’t until we’d gone to bed, and were laying there listening to the gathering spring storm outside that I decided I would risk an emotional confrontation to ask Anna if she’d go to worship with me. She reluctantly said yes.
So, on a Mother’s Day two years after her first visit to an Orthodox Church, Anna accompanied me to All Saints Orthodox Church. As it so happened, the parish priest, Father Patrick, was out of town, and another diocesan priest, Father Malek, served the Divine Litugry–who, ironically, was the one serving the Typika on my first visit to All Saints back in July 2000 (he was Father Deacon Malek at that time)
The sermon, from my vantage point, was probably the best possible “re-introduction” to Orthodoxy that Anna could have had. Being Mother’s Day, and the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women, Father Malek preached on the place of women in the Church, and, quintessentially, on the Mother of our Lord.
I’m not sure what sort of things worked themselves out in Anna’s heart and mind that day or in the days following. But there were small changes evident. Not the least of which was her accepting of Father Patrick coming and blessing Sofie on her birth.
The summer of 2003 was marked by one thing and one thing alone: the anticipation of Sofie’s birth, followed by its fulfillment. Of course, I still attended All Saints, this time more faithfully and regularly than before. Anna’s protests were much more muted and infrequent. Our discussions about Orthodoxy, and All Saints, were much more open and honest. They were discussions, rather than the repetition of entrenched positions.
Though unsurprising, the actions of the Episcopal Church’s General Convention–the ratification of the election of a divorced man in an open homosexual relationship, and the official permission to conduct same sex unions–brought into sharp focus the distinctions which the Orthodox Church offered. This was especially vital in relation to not merely the Episcopal Church but nearly all of the churches about which we had inquired or had visited.
Finally, 14 August came and Sofie was born. It was among the two or three most transformative experiences I’d been through in my entire life. Anna graciously acquiesced to my request for Father Patrick to come and say a prayer of blessing over Sofie. So, the next day, before Sofie was a full twenty-four hours old, Father Patrick and Khouria Denise arrived, with a beautiful gift of a pink dress, to pray over Sofie and share our joy.
For the next several weeks, I urged Anna to go with me to All Saints, trying to balance my desire to bring Sofie to church so as to stand before the icon of the Theotokos and offer my thanks, and trying also to not push Anna beyond where she was willing to go. I continued to go to All Saints, however, and Anna did not any longer give voice to her objections.
Then came September, the month when things turned the corner for the Healy household.
The Saturday before my birthday, the three of us had been running errands and were on the way back home. Out of nowhere, and a propos of nothing, Anna said, “We should make All Saints our regular church home.” I voiced a humble agreement, but wisely refrained from saying much else.
Sunday morning came, my thirty-sixth birthday, and, silently rejoicing within, the Healy’s got ready for worship, piled into the car and headed to All Saints.
I wrote about it at the time:
Today, my wife, Anna, and our daughter, Sofie, worshipped together at All Saints Orthodox Church. For Anna, it was her third worship at All Saints (her fourth Divine Liturgy all told). For Sofie, it was the first time she worshipped with her mommy and daddy at the Divine Liturgy. It was positively the best birthday present I could have ever received.
Sofie slept peacefully through the first part of the service. Then during the Litany prayed with the Procession of the Bread and the Wine, she took part in the blessing of the children. It is the custom at All Saints for Father Patrick to place the Chalice over the heads of all the children, one at a time, and pray “May the Lord our God remember you in His Kingdom, always, now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.” Sofie woke then, as we took her slumbering self from the car seat, so that I could hold her for Father Patrick’s blessing. Anna then took her down to the nursery to feed her. Sofie continued to sleep through the rest of the service.
Then, when the parishioners went to commune the Holy Gifts, I took Sofie from Anna and headed forward to receive the blessing. It wasn’t until just before I stood in front of Father Patrick that I realized Anna had slipped out of the pew and followed behind me. Anna’s never done that before. So there we were, a family, each one at a time receiving from God’s priest the merciful blessings of our Lord.
From that first Sunday worshipping together as a family, Anna and I began to settle, as best we could, into the parish life of All Saints, though we were still inquirers, and no immediate intentions as a family to become Orthodox. It is a great testimony to the parish itself that we were never made to feel second-class, or somehow less Christian than anyone else there. We could not, obviously, partake of the Sacraments, but we joined in as many of the services as we could. The young women and mothers of the parish enfolded Anna into their circle and became a very important support group.
The next three years would be a mix of drawing ever closer to Orthodoxy as well as experiencing some of the most severe forms of testing we could have imagined.
4. Encountering Living Orthodoxy, September 2003 to the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007)
Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim (Rose) of Platina
Three days after our first Sunday worshiping at All Saints together as a family, I received in the mail, my copy of the revised and updated Father Seraphim Rose biography: Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works, by Hieromonk Damascene and published by St. Herman Press. I had already, by then, read twelve books written by, translated by or about Hieromonk Seraphim:
- The Place of Blessed Augustine in the Orthodox Church (January 03),
- St. Seraphim of Sarov (Little Russian Philokalia v. 1) (January 03),
- Orthodoxy and the Religion of the Future (February 03),
- Vita Patrum: The Life of the Fathers (February 03),
- On the Orthodox Veneration of Mary the Birthgiver of God (February 03),
- Not of This World (October 02-March 03),
- The Apocalypse in the Ancient Teachings of Christianity (May 03),
- Nihilism (July 03),
- Orthodox Dogmatic Theology (July 03),
- First-Created Man (July 03),
- Genesis, Creation and Early Man (August 03), and
- Guidance Toward the Spiritual Life (September 03).
Over the next few months I read the new biography
- Father Seraphim Rose: His Life and Works September-December 03, as well as a book of his letters
- Letters from Father Seraphim [December 03].
As I have indicated elsewhere, Father Seraphim has become a significant influence in the shaping of my faith and the practice of prayer and disciplines which I pursue. Indeed, about a year after I set my face toward Orthodoxy, I had come under the conviction that Father Seraphim had become one of my patron saints, in ways strikingly like St. Benedict had done some dozen or so years earlier. As the Lord has mercy, and my priest blesses, I will take the name Benedict Seraphim at my chrismation.
What is it about Father Seraphim that so strikes me and serves as an inspiration to my faith and life? It is difficult to articulate. I have, every years since the autumn of 2002, read his biography, either in the first version (Not of This World) or in the current edition. And every year, I devour it. It is not something I intentionally set out to do: Saying to myself, “Oh, it’s nearing September, I should begin reading Father Seraphim’s biography.” And yet, like some internal magnet, as his feast day approaches, I begin to turn my attention toward reading his life. This is not true of all of his writings. While I have read most of what has been published, and several of those items twice or more, I have not come back to everything again and again. But the account of his life speaks to me again and again.
There are superficial similarities between us: he was, in his academic career, a student of ancient philosophy (in his case Chinese philosophy, whereas my focus is Hellenistic). He chafed under the superficiality and vacuity that is ubiquitous within academia. He experienced the pain of the schism between the mind and the heart. In a much lesser way, I, too, have known these things.
And I think, then, what he demonstrates to me is the integration of one’s person that Orthodoxy makes possible in a way I have found nowhere else. His were no superhuman ascetic feats. It was enough for him to simply follow the way of the life of the Church, fasting when she requires a fast, and fasting according to the guidelines she provides; praying as she requires us to pray, with the prayers she has given to us; giving to the poor as one poor himself. His life, though a monastic one, was an ordinary monastic one. And it speaks, in that ordinariness, of the normalcy that Orthodoxy establishes for a soul.
Surely Fr Seraphim was a thinker and a writer. And he certainly has had a very wide, multi-national influence. But his heart’s desire was simply to struggle, to work and to pray, in one place, his beloved mountain. And it is his influence, coupled with St. Benedict’s moderate Rule for laymen, which has probably shaped me the most, outside the worship of the Orthodox Church.
But Father Seraphim’s influence was a necessary foundation for the significant personal developments in my understanding, and more importantly practice, of the Orthodox Faith and way of life. In spring and summer 2005 I would experience some blessed formation and change in these things.
St. Maximus and Soteriology
Having completed the Father Seraphim biography and the collection of his letters over the Christmas 2003 holidays, 2004 opened with some light popular reading, and soon my family’s first solid exposure to Great Lent in the Orthodox Church. I worshiped at my first Bridegroom Matins service, and experienced some of the most profound and moving services during the Triduum. Although I had attended my first Pascha service the previous year, 2004 was the first for us as a family. It was an amazing and wonderful experience.
Spring gave way to summer, and in June of that year we totaled our car. But the Lord watched over us, and kept us all safe. One of our parishioners, Patricia, helped us get back home that day. A generous gift, our insurance settlement, and a most blessed timing, meant we were without a vehicle of our own only for a couple of brief weeks. We were able to get a good, safe and dependable vehicle.
The rest of 2004 was pretty mundane, in terms of Orthodoxy and our home. Which was good for us. We began to see how normal life as an Orthodox looked, and I was given yet more time to ensure that my conversion to Orthodoxy was genuine and without romanticism.
The year 2005, however, brought for me a new set of important theological developments. Perhaps one of the best things, in terms of my growth in understanding of Orthodoxy, to come out of the beginning of the year, was a post on the Church’s Tradition. That led to a series of exchanges between me and Kevin on the Tradition of the Church (the links to all of the posts are summarized in this final post). And that set of exchanges led then to a later series of posts, which, after the exchanges got underway, I called a soteriology diablog between various interblogolocutors.
The reason why this exchange was so transformative for me is that it led, through a personal recommendation from Perry Robinson, to a reading of Joseph Farrell’s Free Choice in Saint Maximos the Confessor, as well as Farrell’s translation of St. Maximos’ dialogue with Pyrrhus. In fact, I was so taken with Farrell’s book, I read it twice, once in April and then again in September.
It was the examination of the gnomic will of the human person that really opened up soteriology for me. I’d been working on an incomplete seminar paper on free will, and so this issue was fresh in my mind. Too, I was wrestling with the tension between “working out your salvation” and “saved by grace.” This was not a new struggle. I had faced it in my fourth year of Bible college.
I had been raised with an almost semi-Pelagian understanding of salvation, that at times bordered on legalism. In college I grew to better understand grace. But this led, for a time, to a bit of antinomianism. The pendulum swung back to a more moderate spot, but encountering the Orthodox notion of struggle reawakened the tension and how to understand it.
St. Maximos gave me a mechanism and a schema by which I could understand the libertarian nature of human free will, and its ascetical nature of struggle and virtue. (Not all libertarian accounts of free will understand, let alone try to incorporate, the askesis of struggle and virtue in the deliberative will—Robert Kane is a notable and welcome exception.)
It was that conceptual change that helped me to better grasp the Orthodox understanding of salvation, and St. Paul’s admonition to
“work out your salvation with fear and trembling.”
It became clear to me that it was the habitual action, the continuous struggle, the life of the repentance that was, indeed, the point. It wasn’t a juridical declaration from God on high. It was, rather, the union with God that God fashions from our freely willed ascetical struggles in choosing that union, that love. It wasn’t that my struggle somehow earned God’s favor. It wasn’t that my efforts somehow merited grace. It was, rather, that in the struggle, in the effort, God in love freely energizes in me the infinite goods of his grace to not only do but become by his grace that which he is by his nature.
Gone was my semi-Pelagian, Restoration Movement understanding. It now made sense to me how it is that the Orthodox Church is, in some ways, the most ascetically demanding of Christian bodies, and the one place where I have come to know grace, to come finally to realize that God is, indeed, the lover of mankind. Not a God of wrath and judgment, but the God who is love, and who in love, extends his divine goods toward me that I might not merely know about him, but know him in my very being, insofar as my being can contain the tiniest sliver of that sort of knowing.
And once this development had worked its wonder and grace in me, the second major development was on its way.
The Summer of True Philosophia
The highlight of the year came at the midpoint of the summer, on 3 July: Delaina’s birth. Born on the birthday of her late uncle, Delane, her birth was a truly wonderful experience. Anna had chosen to have a drug-free birth and a water birth. The experience was, for me, amazing, blessed, joyous, wonderful and soul-shaking all at once. It was unencumbered by all but the most essential medical technology: just my wife and our baby girl working together. (Oh, sure, the midwife was there to help things along!) Sofie’s birth was just as amazingly wonderful and beautiful in its own particular way, but I definitely prefer the more “natural” way in which Delaina’s birth happened.
I attempted to make sure that I had completed the four incomplete papers and one incomplete master’s thesis by late June (Delaina’s original birth date), and was successful in that. Along the way, as a reward to myself, I engaged in some “free” reading, and so in May I checked out a couple of works of Pierre Hadot, Philosophy as a Way of Life and What is Ancient Philosophy?
These two works could not have come at a better time, following as they did, so closely on the heals of my encounter with St. Maximos and the transformation of my understanding of Orthodox soteriology, that mix of demanding ascetical struggle with a more robust understanding of grace than any other Christian group I’ve encountered.
The encounter with Hadot led, beginning on the first of June and running through almost the middle of July, to a series of reflections on true philosophia. That is to say, the understanding of philosophy not as an academic discipline but as a way of living.
I had been heading in this direction for a couple of months prior to my Hadot reading. I had sat in on a philosophy department colloquium in which one of my revered professors, Dr. Peperzak, lamented the disconnect of the academic study of philosophy with a whole way of living. At the time I was both attracted to Dr. Peperzak’s protest but also explained it away as that “social justice” thing, and to a “European activist” viewpoint. But it nonetheless stayed with me, stuck in my craw as it were, waiting for Hadot to irritate it a bit more, and to lead to some further reflection.
Just as St. Maximos’ conception of the gnomic will opened to me a better understanding of Orthodox askesis and the volitional struggle for virtue, encompassed by and suffused with an energetic divine grace, philosophia, or a way of life, opened to me an understanding of Christian Faith as just that: a peculiar way of living.
As a Protestant, when I encountered Orthodoxy, I did what any good Protestant does: I read about it and studied it.
This is how a Protestant enacts his faith: through intellectual study. After all, in the churches in which I was raised, when we wanted to find answers for our questions, we studied the Bible. The Bible was, for us a textbook of sorts, a treasure trove of information from God’s mind to ours, which we were to mine for information on what to believe, on what ethical principles to hold–but rarely, if ever, on how to live the sort of life Christ lives. So, for the first two years of my investigations of Orthodoxy, I read and studied.
Oh, sure, I went to a handful of Divine Liturgies, and I adopted an Orthodox prayerbook and Psalter. But nearly all my engagement with Orthodoxy was in the head. Even when I first decided to worship regularly at All Saints, I spent the next six months studying and writing essays related to the questions in my mind regarding the Orthodox Faith. None of those essays dealt with worship or the Orthodox way of living.
But when encountering philosophia and its distinction from philosophy, and especially noting how some of the Church Fathers, such as St. Justin the Philosopher, characterized Christianity as “true philosophia,” that really opened up to me that Orthodoxy is not just a set of doctrines, as was my Protestant experience, but a way of life.
A way of life characterized by the ascetical struggle of the libertarian, gnomic will toward the establishment of virtue in the soul, always and ever energized by divine grace in such a struggle.
These were the keys that opened up for me what Orthodoxy was all about. It wasn’t just a neater, more “high liturgy” way of doing Sunday worship. It wasn’t just a greater devotion and connection to the historic Church.
It wasn’t “Catholicism without the Pope.” It was, rather, a very real and peculiar way of living, a way of living that has been held and maintained in unbroken continuity and consistency with the Church of the Apostles. It was, in fact, not just a different way of living. It was, to be brutally blunt: life itself.
From that life sprang genuine, cosmic worship. From that life sprang an organic connection to the historic Church. From that life sprang Truth, and thus true doctrine, dogma and discipline. From that life sprang a particular way of living. But beneath it all was life: the life of Christ as given to his Church by way of his hypostatic union with his Body. The sacraments are not “genuine” simply because one can trace a tactile succession of the episcopate. The Orthodox Mysteries are “genuine” because they spring from the life of Christ himself, the life he gives to his Body the Church, and which the Church, then, may, as a living organism, give to the various members which that Body is.
I do not think I could have come to this realization, if I had not gone through these two fundamental and seismic shifts in my thinking during 2005. They were, quite literally for me, the keys of comprehension unlocking to me the truth and beauty and goodness and grace that is the Orthodox Church, Christ’s Body.
But this, of course, was just the beginning. The testing of the genuineness of this renewal of mind was to come.
A Year of Testing and Struggle
Last year, 2006, was the most difficult year I’ve ever faced. We began the year with significant financial struggles. By God’s grace those had eased by mid-year. As part of those struggles, we were without a home of our own for about two and a half months; and as a result of that state, my family and I were separated from one another during that time, while I continued to work and earn an income, staying with friends, and my wife and daughters stayed with her family in Oklahoma.
And, finally, as the year wound down with the Thanksgiving and Christmas holiday seasons, I experienced the severe turmoil with my mom and sisters, and we lost our baby in utero, and as a result of the miscarriage, I almost lost my wife. I can’t imagine very many scenarios that would have been so difficult as this past year was for us.
Although our struggles began prior to Lent, they really began to come to a point as Lent was getting underway. That, coupled with my wife and daughters temporarily relocating to Oklahoma in April, made for a Lenten desolation I had never before known.
While things eventually improved, including my landing of a job that is both challenging and rewarding—though it is not the academic job I envisioned myself in about this point in my life—new challenges ended the year. As with all sorts of things like these, some of our struggles were a mix of the consequences of our own failings, as well as the happenstance of hurtful things that happen in a fallen world. Others, of course, were simply the sorrow that a bent and twisted world brings as we all await the cosmic redemption.
While I might say that I learned a deeper faith from enduring these things, I’m not certain my life has the sort of faithful constancy to back such a claim. I did learn something about the seldom-early, never-late merciful compassion of God, and was once again given the indisputable evidence that he is a God to be trusted. But again, these things are not for me to teach, inconstant as I am. And with regard to the pain of the struggle of those months, that is such an inwardly private thing, I’m not sure it can be communicated without stumbling over one’s pride. So it is best to pass over much of the year in silence.
Finally, into the Catechumenate
One thing that did happen this past autumn was our second “false-start” into the catechumenate. We’d had our first such “false-start” a year before in the autumn of 2005. During Autumn 2005, Anna and I had gone to meet a friend for dinner up in Guerney, and on the way home, with the girls asleep in the car as we drove down the interstate, I broached the subject of my desire to become Orthodox, but also affirmed my desire to do so as a family.
I tried to express my willingness to wait a bit longer, but at the same time tried to communicate that I did not feel I could wait for forever. Surprisingly, Anna indicated that she would be willing to become Orthodox. We talked to Father Pat, a few weeks later, but as it turned out, we didn’t then make it into the catechumenate. Looking back, last year would doubtless have been a difficult year to meaningfully grow through the catechumenate amid such significant life traumas.
A similar scenario played itself out this past autumn. Our life circumstances had begun to improve on many fronts, and I expressed again my desire to be Orthodox and my desire that we do so as a family. Anna reiterated her own
willingness to become Orthodox, and once again, we tried to get a meeting with Father. This time Father’s travel schedule and our own holiday travels failed to mesh. Then the miscarriage focused our energies and resources. But we renewed our query shortly after the new year began and life had once again settled down for us.
This time, we finally were blessed to enter the catechumenate. Though, I must admit, it did not unfold in quite the way I though it would. Whereas I thought we’d have a face-to-face with Father Pat, and that we would formally enter the catechumenate in time for the start of Great and Holy Lent, instead, it was a lot less formal, even sort of anti-climactic.
On the Sunday of Orthodoxy, after Lent had been underway for a week, and after trying without success for a couple of weeks to get with Father, we finally tried to get with Father Pat immediately after services (he was going out of town over the following days), but he was busy and deferred us via a phone call later toward mid-afternoon. Father and Anna spoke for less than fifteen minutes on the phone, and that was that. We were catechumens.
As it happened, our “enrollment” in the cathechumenate was a portent of the low-key way the catechumenate period would unfold for us.
5. The Catechumentate, the Sunday of Orthodoxy (25 February 2007) to Pentecost Sunday (27 May 2007)
Our catechumenate was fairly informal. First of all, as I understand it, the catechumenate at All Saints itself is itself fairly informal: one worships and attends Sunday School, and works out the rest of the details with the priest. Some catechumens may need more reading, others less. Others may need one or another pastoral counsel. Everyone is a unique person. The catechumenate is not a production line. Another part of the reason, perhaps, that our cathechumenate was a lot less formalized is that we’d been coming to All Saints as a family for more than three years already (and I’d been coming regularly for about four and a half years).
If I recall correctly, our archdiocesan policy is that someone worship for a year in an Orthodox parish before being accepted into the Church. We’d definitely met that standard.
Even so, the beginning plan, remarkably, was that our household would enter the Church at Pascha. But Anna had made plans to visit her family during Lent, and so would miss about two weeks of the Fast. Father unhesitatingly decided to have us wait till Pentecost. And even that date was not set in stone at first. Father was careful to articulate that there was no pressure in this—Orthodox, after all, believe in libertarian free will—and wanted to ensure Anna herself felt no such pressure, but could focus on preparing for becoming Orthodox.
Our preparations, Anna’s and mine, were, perhaps unsurprisingly, quite different. While I set myself, with Father’s blessing, to read St. Nicholas Cabasilas’ The Life in Christ and to really set my mind and heart on what it meant to be Orthodox, Anna made certain of the preparations of the girls’ baptismal gowns, and looked for white dresses for them to wear. While I was ruminating over at last being able to receive the Sacraments after so long, Anna was thinking about saints’ names.
I don’t mean to stereotype and it certainly wasn’t quite so hard and fast a distinction as presented here, but I was still entering Orthodoxy with my mind and working on the idea of the thing, while Anna was pursuing it with, well, a momma’s heart. She is more like Our Lady in that respect than me. I was lost in the clouds, while Anna was making sure the girls would have something nice to wear after their baptisms.
My patrons, of course, have been settled for me long ago: St. Benedict of Nursia (14 March) and Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim of Platina (2 September). Even our family patron made himself known about three years ago: St. John the Wonderworker of Shanghai and San Francisco (2 July).
As we prepared for the baptisms of our daughters and Anna’s and my chrismations, we also settled on patron saints for Anna and the girls. Anna, unsurprisingly, given her love of things French, chose St. Genevieve of Paris (3 January). Given our Irish heritage, I thought St. Brigid of Kildare (1 February) would be a good patron for Delaina, and Anna agreed. Sofie, on the other hand, rather characteristically chose her own.
We had made our decisions for Anna and Delaina based in part of a children’s book of saints that we had purchased at Eighth Day Books in Wichita, Kansas, during our last Thanksgiving trip home. As we flipped through the book, the icon-like pictures provided colorful images of the saints, and Sofie pointed determinedly at the one of St. Nina, Enlightener of Georgia (14 January): “That one!” she said. And remarked on the cross in St. Nina’s hand.
“She has a cross.”
And so it was settled.
The preparations I’d given to the day earlier in the week were not what I had imagined they would be, nor what I intended them to be, but they were the best preparations I could do. I had a good long talk with our Father Deacon Theophan Friday afternoon over “pints” at The Celtic Knot. That was a good time. I spent way too much time struggling over trying to get past the anticipation of the experience and not enough time focusing on the Persons at the center of the experience. But thank God, that was finally, in his mercy, conquered through much prayer and wrestling.
Making confession was different. I’d confessed before as an Anglican–rather regularly–and as an Anglican made a life confession. But the life confession I gave Saturday was, well, not what I imagined it would be. Father Patrick helped to focus by some pointed and distinguishing questions.
But, again, not as I’d thought it would be. Unlike much of my previous spiritual life, I had to learn to trust the Church, in the wise counsel of her man, my parish priest, and had to continue my lessons in grace versus human merit. Clearly, my previous Restoration Movement Christian upbringing was having significant influence.
Unfortunately, our daughters were very anxious about their baptisms. They were somewhat intimidated by and uncomfortable with Father Patrick. And though we had practiced several times in the tub in the weeks prior to Pentecost, when we did a little practice with Father Patrick after Vespers the night before, the girls were anxious and crying. Father wisely and rightly I think called off the girls’ baptisms for later when they were less anxious and the experience would not be a traumatic one for them.
6. Into the Church, Our Chrismations on Pentecost Sunday (27 May 2007)
And then the day came: Pentecost, and our chrismations. The service for our chrismations started pretty much the second we walked in the door. We weren’t late, though we were not as early as I would have liked to have been on that day of all days, but we walked in the door and there was Father standing at the top of the stairs leading into the nave. We walked up the stairs and he said, “Take off your shoes and socks,” and away we went.
The chrismation ceremony was a bit of a blur. I’d read over the service in Hapgood a handful of times, but there I was in the midst of the rite and simply standing in the moment. We renounced some heresies, I know. We expressed our desire to be in the Church. We said the Creed. We vowed life obedience. We kissed the Gospel and the Cross.
The moment of absolution was upon me before I knew it. But you can rest assured that at that point my mind was focused. The declaration of forgiveness brought tears to my eyes. But not in an overly emotional sort of way.
The anointing took enough time that I could slow down and take things in. We were anointed on forehead, eyes, nose, lips, ear lobes, chest (or, rather, where neck and collarbone meet), hands (palms and top of the hand), and feet–signifying, if I understand correctly, the mind, the heart, the will and all the senses.
At the end of the rite we were introduced as the newest members of the holy Orthodox Church. There was polite clapping and then Father explained why it was that our daughters were not going to be baptized that day. Then the Divine Liturgy proper was under way and I was praying in the Liturgy for the first time as an Orthodox Christian.
For me at least, right or wrong, having been without the Eucharist for five years, the rest of the service was focused on being ready to receive God into my body and soul in my first Holy Communion. Due both to my new understanding of Communion and my experience of it, I will not say much about the Communion, but, rather, simply draw a veil over it. But I will say this: For the first time in my life I understand why all but the faithful were, historically, dismissed at the beginning of the transition to the Communion rite.
I know there are some misgivings about the use of the terms “conversion” and “converts” with reference to the experience of us who come to Orthodoxy as already in some sense Christian. Believe me, this side of chrismation, with the oil still wet, as it were, I see no problem with those terms whatsoever. I do have a sense of being “newly illumined.” The day’s Liturgy and many aspects of it, particularly Holy Communion, just really make sense to me in ways they did not before.
I do not speak of conversion in the popular evangelical sense where this is some marked point of transition with with some strong emotive content, or certain ecstatic experiences. I know I certainly had none of that. There were some tears, to be sure. There was a greater sense of reverence and holy dread than I’ve ever known before as I approached the Chalice. But there was no “ecstasy,” no “warm fuzzies,” no swirling emotions at all, really. But there was a very real sense of finally “getting it” about certain aspects of the Orthodox Faith and life. Things clicked because of the experience.
And I have a sense that my troublesome mind-heart split, my “life of the mind” reclusion, is beginning now to be healed.
There is a greater sense of belonging, as well. This, of course, was bound to happen. But it’s not a though now we’re on the parish social committee’s speed dial (do we have a parish social committe?). Rather, it is a sense of really and truly belonging to the same Church, now, that all our parish friends belong to.
All Saints has never ever done anything but made us feel most welcome and included, from the moment I first stepped through the doors, and from the moment Anna visited on the Mother’s Day when she was still pregnant with Sofie, we have felt nothing but welcome. And even, to some degree, part of a family.
But that sense became even stronger after our chrismations. More to the point, these patron saints who have been praying for me–well, now I am part of their Church, part of the Body, and a la John 17, I am now united to them in a way I have not been before. As I have invoked their prayers this side of the chrism, that kinship has been felt most strongly.
But one of the sweetest aspects of this unity is that between Anna and I. Anna and I have always had fundamental and deep agreement on the most central and basic questions of the Faith. But even though when she and I met we were both Restoration Movement Christians, she was more strongly identifying with her Nazarene background while I had moved on to Anglicanism. And she has always preferred “contemporary” styles of worship, whereas I wanted Liturgy. But now we are part of the same Church, the same Body of Christ and there is a new unity of Faith and life that God has given us in our common sacrament of chrismation.
All the above notwithstanding, one of the most glaring realities I now understand is my ignorance of Orthodoxy. What I know is not a little, but what I know is so very much less than I will come to know.
As I said to Father Pat in answer to his question about how my first two hours as an Orthodox had been,
“I have some questions.”
He smiled and said,
“I’ll bet you do.”