by Isaac David Haymes
When I was at Durham University in the 1970’s I kept a diary, and I recorded an event which I had completely forgotten until I re-read it a couple of years ago: I attended a talk on the Orthodox Church which so impressed me that I thought about joining. Well, it didn’t happen. In fact, I remained a confused Charismatic, Evangelical, Catholic Anglican. Within a few years I wasn’t practising any Christian faith at all.
Perhaps this is not so surprising. I had no real Christian roots; I didn’t come from a Christian family and hadn’t even been baptised as a child. I did briefly attend a Sunday School when I was about 4 or 5, but even that only lasted long enough for me to attend the end of year concert and cover myself in shame when I burst into tears while trying to sing The Lord is my Shepherd.
I didn’t have any more contact with Christianity until I met some new friends in my fourth year at secondary school. Having recently become Christians, they were keen to share their new-found faith, but I was not about to succumb. However, one night, after a year or so of friendly debate with my friends, I was lying in bed thinking about a recently found interest in the occult. For no reason that I can remember, I ‘decided’ I would try out occultism for six months, then I might look at Christianity. Then the thought came to me,
‘But if it’s true, shouldn’t you do something about it now?’
This thought was so compelling that I readily agreed and said some sort of prayer. That was 29th February 1976.
I was baptised and confirmed later that year. The following year I went to university and encountered several different sorts of Christian. Many of them were Charismatics, who eventually persuaded me to undergo what they called ‘Baptism in the Spirit’. However, I also loved attending Evensong and Communion at Durham Cathedral and mixing with Anglo-Catholics of varying degrees of elevation.
After three years of tasting Christian faith in these alternating flavours, I went to do a Teaching Certificate in Leicester, where I attended a house-church. When I returned home, I was full of Charismatic ardour; or rather, I was full of myself, and probably offended quite a few people with my zeal to change the local church. Then, when sex appeared on the horizon it all fizzled out and I departed the Christian faith in search of some other happiness.
Fast forward nearly twenty years to Amsterdam in the 1990’s, when I underwent a period of turmoil at home and at work. Encouraged by friends who saw how unhappy I was, I began to explore ‘spirituality’. I studied Tibetan Buddhism, Jewish Mysticism, Advaita Hinduism, Sufism – almost anything except Christianity, but I discovered a little shop round the corner with an icon in the window, an Orthodox bookshop.
I liked icons enough to put them on my meditation altar along with my buddhas, mandalas, etc, but I was still not quite open to Christian faith. However, there came a time when I felt I had to accept Christianity as a valid path to ‘enlightenment’ if I was to be faithful to the other teachings I was following, and it was not long before I had decided it was the one path ‘appropriate’ to me! By the time I returned to England, I was already pursuing some kind of Christian faith.
I think my journey to Orthodoxy began in earnest when I went to live in Brighton and started seeing a spiritual director, an Anglican priest who was very pro-Orthodox. He recommended I read Fr Sophrony’s St Silouan the Athonite.
He later organised a series of seminars at Sussex University in preparation for a visit by Bishop Kallistos Ware, whose The Orthodox Church we studied. At that point I simply started reading everything I could lay my hand on about Orthodoxy, including the many testimonies of Christians, mostly Evangelicals in the U.S., who had been converting to Orthodoxy. I found all this so compelling, plus I loved everything I read about the Orthodox view of Christian life.
For a year or more I read these and other books about the history of Orthodoxy, about the faithfulness of the Orthdodox Church in preserving the doctrines of the Apostles and the Holy Fathers who came after them. Here was no innovation for innovations’s sake, no ‘development’ of doctrine, no questioning of the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection. Here was a faithfulness to Scripture, to all Scripture, without simplistic fundamentalism. Here, above all, were depths of wisdom and beauty which I should not ignore if I wanted to be truly alive.
In The Orthodox Church I read about St Amphilochius who had said,
‘Whoever does not love trees does not love Christ’.
Being a lover of trees myself, I couldn’t resist seeing this as profound wisdom. I was also struck by the luminous quality of Fr Sophrony’s writing and his account of St Silouan’s humility, gentleness and deep love for Christ. The thought that such virtues were not confined to Saints of long ago, but were to be found in a near contemporary (St Silouan died in 1938), compelled me to ask myself why I would not want to drink deeply at the same well that had nurtured these holy men of God.
After leaving Brighton, I sought out Fr Michael Harper, whose book, A Faith Fulfilled, I had read previously. I had read quite a few books, but I still needed to see the real thing for myself – and have some questions answered. I attended a Saturday evening Liturgy at St George’s Cathedral in London and somebody there recommended a visit to the monastery at Tolleshunt Knights in Essex.
The following week, I arrived between afternoon tea and the evening Jesus Prayer service. I sat alone in the refectory, feeling as if I had arrived in some alien place and wondering what I had let myself in for. Then I looked at the icons on the walls and ceiling and realised I was looking at something I had already become familiar with. I felt at home. It wasn’t just that I felt at home with icons, but that the figures in the icons also were no strangers to me and were watching over me.
When I later joined in the evening Jesus Prayer service, I felt that my poor and feeble prayers were not ascending to God alone, but that they were being joined with the prayers of the others present and ascending to God as one; I was experiencing the reality of the Church for the first time. Returning to the St George’s the following week, I told Fr Michael I wanted to begin catechumen classes. That was at the end of 2001.
But, once I had started the classes, I hesitated. Although I was convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy, I found myself considering what I would be leaving behind. As in my days at university, I still loved Choral Evensong and the Anglican Communion Service. I still loved the old hymns in the English Hymnal and Hymns Ancient and Modern, even though hardly anybody seemed to sing them any more. Well, I haven’t stopped loving that old church music, but I realised that the only things keeping me back were really just sentiment and nostalgia; I couldn’t let such superficial considerations prevent me from continuing my journey, though I am glad I hesitated long enough to make peace with the past.
I was received by Chrismation into the Orthodox Church on Holy Friday 2002, taking the name Isaac, from St Isaac the Syrian, a 7th century ascetic whose writings have been described as ‘matchless in their beauty and fired with a divine spark’.
When I wrote in my 1978 diary of becoming Orthodox, I was almost certainly not ready to take that step, but from such a seed planted nearly a quarter of a century ago has come the best and choicest fruit of all.
Glory to Christ our God!