My Journey to Orthodoxy, a Letter from a Man Who Traveled West to East
David Adrian, a public relations consultant, writes about his personal odyssey from Western to Eastern Christianity. In all of our stories, we ask writers to share their memoirs honestly — not to provoke heated debate over the writers’ viewpoints, but so that all of us can understand more about the fascinating complexity of our global religious community.
My journey to Orthodox Christianity began when I was baptized as an infant at Sacred Heart Catholic Church in Saginaw, Michigan in 1944 and ended when I was chrismated (confirmed) at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Detroit in 2005, a journey of less than 100 miles as the crow flies but one of more than 60 years as time flies.
Spiritually, they were tortuous years.My late father and mother, Clarence and Elsie, children of French, Polish and Italian immigrants, were married at Sacred Heart, my father’s family church, during World War II. He was a bomber pilot in the Army Air Forces, and I was born on January 15, 1944 while he was flying combat missions in Europe. He survived the war physically unscathed but spiritually wounded.
We attended Sunday Mass at Sacred Heart for a while after my father returned from the war, perhaps out of deference to his pious mother, perhaps because he loved singing in the choir. One of my most vivid memories of that time –- and a foreshadowing of my future life as a Christian –- is standing next to him in the choir loft. But, by the time I entered kindergarten, we had ceased attending church altogether, except for weddings and funeral of relatives.
Neither my father nor my mother ever explained exactly how or why he had lost his faith and become an agonistic. He simply cited the lack of empirical evidence of the existence of God, the irreconcilable claims of the world’s great religions, the dogmatism and authoritarianism of the Catholic Church, and the corporal punishment he had suffered at the hands of the nuns in parochial school. I was raised as an agnostic, and until my conversion to Christianity in my late twenties, I considered myself one.
Indeed, I went my father one better and become an outright atheist.
I experienced a similar political transformation during those years. My parents were New Deal Democrats, and I became a liberal Democrat, too, only to go them one better by becoming an outright Marxist. Of course, neither Marxism nor atheism was popular among my peers in Bridgeport, Michigan, the little village where I grew up during the Eisenhower years. But I was by nature anti-authoritarian and argumentative, and therefore relished the role of rebel with a cause.
There was a brief interlude during my junior year at Saginaw High School (Bridgeport didn’t have a high school then) when I flirted with Catholicism again. Why I did so, I cannot recall. Perhaps I was beginning to realize, however unconsciously, that atheism and Marxism were intellectual, moral — and spiritual dead ends.
Perhaps it was a matter of aesthetics. I had also adopted my parents’ love for classical music, including choral music and opera, which led to an appreciation of Catholic liturgical music including, in those days before Vatican II, Gregorian chant. I also loved to draw and paint, and had begun studying art. Soon I was confronted by the great religious paintings of the Old Masters in the coffee table art books that I devoured in the public library. Both music and art aroused a spiritual hunger, as well as a realization that I knew very little about Christianity.
A Catholic schoolmate in whom I confided encouraged me to attend his church, Holy Family, a large, prominent one in Saginaw. I did so one Sunday morning, walking the five miles between my home and the church because I was unwilling to ask my father if I could borrow the family car for the purpose. Despite having received no preparation nor having gone to confession, I accompanied my friend to the altar rail and received Holy Communion. When the parish priest found out, he ordered me to complete an adult catechism class before receiving the sacrament again.
Before I could complete the class, however, I was involved in serious automobile accident. My parents, my sisters, Martha and Sarah, my maternal grandmother, Agatha, and I were driving to California on summer vacation when our car collided with a jacked-knifed 18-wheeler near Chicago.
Everyone involved in the accident, including the truck driver and his son, was taken to St. Mary Hospital in Blue Island, Illinois. The driver and I were the only ones who escaped serious injury. The son, a youngster who had been riding with him in violation of safety regulations, was fatally injured. I watched him die in the emergency room, accompanied by his father and mother and a Catholic priest who administered the last rites.
I was kept at the hospital overnight for observation before being released to relatives who lived in the Chicago area. During the night, one of the nurses, a Catholic nun, encouraged me to pray, handing me a prayer card with an icon of the Virgin Mary. I refused — but I can’t recall why. Nor did I resume the catechism class when I returned home, retreating instead to my familiar atheism.
The real turning point in my spiritual life came about seven years later when I was in the U.S. Army. I had enlisted in January 1966 after spending three aimless years in college and, following the example of an older cousin whom I admired, became a medical corpsman. Unbeknownst to me until recently, I was even assigned to his old unit, the 888th Medical Company, a field-ambulance company stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland, in the summer of 1966.
In October of the following year, the anti-Vietnam War movement staged its first big action, the so-called March on the Pentagon. Because the 888th was a mobile medical unit, we were assigned to support other Army and Marine Corps units defending the building. The medical officer in charge assigned me and a corpsman from the Pentagon staff to offer relief to antiwar protesters overcome by tear gas as they stormed the barricades.
From Friday night, October 20 to the wee hours of Sunday morning, October 22, the two of us circumnavigated the grounds of the huge building in a civilian-style ambulance with jerry cans of water, flushing the eyes and skin of afflicted protesters. Many of them cursed us for being soldiers, but no one refused our aid. Because of our status as medics and our freedom of movement, we could observe the conflict and talk with participants on both sides of the lines. And because the 888th was bivouacked in a bus tunnel under the Pentagon, I spent the entire weekend on site and missed little of the action.
I was shocked therefore to read subsequent accounts in my then favorite newspapers –- New York Times, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun –- that bore little resemblance to events I had just witnessed first hand. Realizing that I needed a different take on current affairs, I turned to the National Review, the magazine founded and edited by the late William F. Buckley, Jr. Reading it was a revelation, soon leading me on to Buckley’s book “Man and God at Yale,” Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the French Revolution,” Russell Kirk’s “The Conservative Mind” and other conservative tomes.
In addition to conservative thinkers, the National Review introduced me to religious intellectuals, eventually inspiring me to read, among other things, the King James Bible from cover to cover. In January 1970, a year after I was discharged from the Army, my wife and I were married in her family’s church, First Congregational in Saginaw.
My conversion to Christianity was not yet complete, however, and I was still searching for a church home. After considerably more study, I narrowed my choices to Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. All administered the same Sacraments (Mysteries in the Orthodox Church), including Baptism, Eucharist, Confirmation (Chrismation in the Orthodox Church), Marriage, Holy Orders and Anointing of the Sick or Unction.
It seemed to me that the Eucharist should be the central element of worship, and all of them were liturgical churches. All claimed to have maintained the apostolic succession.
All recognized the authority of the first seven Ecumenical Councils and the Nicene Creed as the essential statement of the faith.
I rejected Roman Catholicism, because of its power structure and the doctrine of the infallibility of the papacy. That left Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. My first choice –- even then -– was Orthodoxy because it seemed to me to be a direct successor to the ancient Church.
My wife and I were then living in metropolitan Detroit where there was a wealth of Orthodox churches –- but I never found one that conducted services in English. And, about that time, I received a warm welcome at a local Episcopal church.
As I became more and more active in an Episcopal church, I became a leader in my congregation and even volunteered in the local ecumenical community. I studied church history, liturgy and New Testament Greek at the diocesan school of theology, and I attended an ecumenical Cursillo weekend at a local Catholic seminary. Meanwhile, my wife, Rae-lynne, and I had four children, all of whom were duly baptized and confirmed at All Saints, and active in the youth group, children’s choir and other parish activities.
But it felt to me as though my new church was changing radically –- and was moving away from me. There were changes in ordination standards, a new prayer book that suddenly required us to accept new liturgies –- then, rising debates over the church’s core theology within the ranks of the denomination itself.
What finally sent me out the church door was the election in 2003 of V. Gene Robinson, a divorced father of two living with a male partner, as bishop coadjutor of the Diocese of New Hampshire -– “the first openly gay bishop in the history of Christendom,” as CBS News reported at the time. I promptly quit the Episcopal Church and did not darken a church door for more than a year, content to read Scripture and pray at home.
I knew that I must find a new church home, however, and was finally prompted to do so by the marriage of our younger son, Michael. He had just graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point and his fiancé, Katrina, from the University of Michigan. They were high school sweethearts. Katrina’s mother is from Greece and their family’s church is St. George Greek Orthodox in Bloomfield Hills. Michael and Katrina were married there on June 20, 2004.
It was the first church service I had attended in nearly a year.
After the wedding, I began serious church shopping. I knew two things:
- I wanted to become Orthodox, and
- I wanted to find a suitable parish with a good choir.
A music critic for one of the Detroit daily newspapers suggested I contact George Raptis, a prominent Greek Orthodox church musician. I called him and visited him one Sunday in August at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Troy, where he had put together an ad hoc choir because most regular choristers were on vacation.
I had planned to listen to the choir rehearse and then attend the Divine Liturgy with the congregation, but George invited me to sing. I protested that I had never sung an Orthodox service and didn’t know Greek well enough to sing it, but he insisted. Fortunately, the Greek text of the music was accompanied by a phonetic transliteration, but it was nevertheless the most intense sight reading experience of my life, one that I was to repeat as I visited other Orthodox churches that fall and sang with their choirs.
I contacted other Orthodox musicians through PSALM, a national pan-Orthodox musical society based in California, and was advised to visit Holy Trinity Orthodox Church in Detroit. They especially recommended the choir director, Victoria Kopistiansky. I was told the same thing by my future Chrismation sponsor, Dean Calvert, a prominent Orthodox layman and a member of the board of St. Andrew House -– Center for Orthodox Christian Studies in Detroit.
I had gone to St. Andrew House in September 2004 to hear a talk by Frederica Mathewes-Green, the well-known Orthodox writer and lecturer whose book about her own conversion from Anglicanism to Orthodoxy, “Facing East,” I also read in my spiritual journey. I introduced myself to her, and she introduced to me to Dean, who was emceeing the event. He became my confidant and mentor.
I visited Holy Trinity in October, introduced myself to Matushka Vickie and her husband the priest, Father Lev, and began singing in the choir on my next visit. Father Lev became my spiritual father and catechist. After several weeks of preparation, I was chrismated at Holy Trinity on April 3, 2005, the Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross, one of the five Sundays of the Great Fast of Lent.
It was perhaps the most intensely spiritual day of my life.
Holy Trinity was founded by Russian immigrants in 1915. It’s current building, erected in 1953-55, is a beautiful temple, full of dark icons, candles and incense.
That’s all part of Orthodoxy’s appeal –- its appeal to the five senses, as well as the intellect. One sees the icons, the candles, the vestments of the clergy and the acolytes; one smells the incense; one hears the entire liturgy being sung or chanted by the clergy and the choir; one does physical prostrations when one prays.
Then, of course, there’s the spiritual discipline: personal daily prayers; confession and fasting before Holy Communion; four periods of rigorous fasting during the liturgical year, especially the Great Fast of Lent before Pascha (Easter); the Divine Liturgies of St. Basil and St. John Chrysostom that can last for hours during which worshippers spend most of their time standing or kneeling.
Orthodoxy has been called the Marine Corps of Christianity.
I could intellectualize about all these elements of the faith before converting to Orthodoxy, but only through direct experience –- worship and the sacraments of Chrismation, Confession and Eucharist -– could I begin to understand and appreciate them.
For my Chrismation, Rae-lynne and our two daughters, Elizabeth and Catherine; Elizabeth’s husband, Mark; Dean and his wife, their two children, and his mother and father were in the congregation for the service. As I took my vows, I listening with such concentration to Father Lev’s questions and my own responses that entire experience approached the surreal. I then received Holy Communion for the first time.
I was officially Orthodox.
That’s my journey to Orthodoxy. Someday, I may write a book-length memoir of this journey. If so, I would retitle it: “My Journey Into Orthodox,” because it is a spiritual journey that continues day by day — and shall not end until I fall asleep in the Lord.