by Fr. Bill Olnhausen
A convert from the Anglican tradition , Fr. Bill recently celebrated 20 years as an Orthodox Christian. In honor of that glorious occasion, we are reprinting his “ten year” look back at his conversion to the Orthodox faith.
What I hoped to find in the Orthodox Church I was seeking stability in the faith. I sought the Church that St. Irenaeus had described, which “carefully preserves” apostolic teachings and “proclaims them and teaches them and hands them down with perfect harmony”, throughout the world and from generation to generation. By process of elimination, I had concluded that only the Orthodox Church fit this description.
I came to the Orthodox Church demoralized and exhausted, war-weary from the losing battle of trying to maintain traditional doctrinal, liturgical and moral standards in western Christianity. In ten years in the Orthodox Church, I have encountered not one disbelieving bishop, priest, theologian or layperson. Certainly there are Orthodox who don’t take the faith seriously or who are lax in their practice, but so far as I can see no one denies it or is trying to change it. Orthodox unity in the faith still astounds me. I found what I was seeking.
What I feared as I came to the Orthodox Church:
(1) That I would never fit in. Those who have grown up Orthodox cannot imagine how forbidding the Orthodox Church can appear to an outsider. I now find it hard to believe that ten years ago people with Middle Eastern and Greek backgrounds seemed very exotic to me. Orthodoxy felt “foreign” and “ethnic” to this German/Welsh/Irish-American. Partly I was a prisoner of my own ethnic background. But also I was afraid I would break some eastern cultural or religious tabu and cause great offense. Orthodox worship appeared very difficult to master, and I was afraid “cradle” Orthodox would laugh at me as I struggled to learn it. I was wrong.
Yes, I have encountered some ethnic differences – which have caused me to grow. I have learned to hug and kiss a lot more, and also to express myself more forcefully. (I have had to abandon Anglican subtlety. There’s no point in “beating around the bush” with Orthodox people!) I have eaten things I never ate before. The wonderful ethnic diversity of Orthodoxy has been broadening to me in a number of ways. (Ah, the food at our church suppers!)
But my fears were unfounded. Though I still make mistakes (just ask the bishops…), Orthodox worship has not been as difficult as I anticipated. Furthermore, once you learn it, it holds still: no national liturgical commission is trying to revise and modernize Orthodox worship – thank God! The “cradle” Orthodox who have come to Saint Nicholas have, with almost no exceptions, been sweet and tolerant as I have learned Orthodoxy. Indeed I have never felt so loved in my life. And as for the Antiochian Archdiocese… surely the Middle-Easterners who welcomed us into their Archdiocese must sometimes find us converts and our mistakes and peculiar ways hard to take, but I have found only the warmest of welcomes.
There has been not the slightest pressure to become anything ethnically other than what I am. After ten years, I feel far more at home in this “foreign” Orthodox Church than I ever felt in my former denomination.
(2) I was afraid I would starve to death. I feared Khouria Dianna and I would have to live in poverty, being supported only by a struggling little mission in a “poor immigrant Church”. I was wrong. I can’t speak of all Orthodox jurisdictions and parishes – but I am amazed at the amount of money that flows through the Antiochian Archdiocese and through this congregation. My former supposedly wealthy denomination had nothing to compare to Antiochian Village and Conference Center, or to the style of our Archdiocese Conventions and Conferences, or to the proportion of money that goes to good works outside the Archdiocese.
I could never have imagined that in ten years our own small congregation would have a fine temple, mostly paid off, and would have given away well over $100,000. The people of Saint Nicholas have supported me more than generously. Khouria Dianna has found it good to work full time, because her health insurance is so good. But we have got our children through college, for the first time in our life we own a home, my automobile allowance allows me to pay cash for my cars, and we have traveled more and farther than ever before in our lives. This has been a great faith-builder: we have far more trust in the power of God to provide. And I was afraid of going hungry!
What else I have found in the Orthodox Church
(1) The Kingdom of God. I have shared this with many of you before: About the fourth Sunday after I became Orthodox, as I stood at the altar at Divine Liturgy, the presence of God and the saints and angels became Real to me. It was not an intellectual discovery (I had believed it before), nor was it a new feeling. The Kingdom was just Present, almost palpable. That was how I began to encounter the common Orthodox experience of worship as “heaven on earth”. It has continued at every service since then. At worship in my former denomination, I tried hard to concentrate my mind on God and the saints. Now I don’t have to. They concentrate on me; they surround me; they encompass me. Words are inadequate. I can’t describe the indescribable. But most Orthodox know from their own experience what I’m trying to say.
(2) That Orthodoxy has the power to change lives, beginning with my own: My despair and weariness have turned to hope and and energy. Inside, I feel younger than I did ten years ago. And I have seen so many in my congregation turn to God in a new way. Again, I don’t deny that there are many nominal Orthodox, and none of us practice Orthodoxy as we should. But I see that the Orthodox doctrine of theosis (that God makes us like himself, makes us holy) is not theory: it is a description of what actually happens to people in the Orthodox Church. In my former denomination I always felt that I had to change people by my own words and efforts. Here God and the Church do it, and I’m simply one of those being changed.
(3) Not only great joy but also lots of fun! Starting a new mission was hard work on the part of all of us, and just conducting Orthodox worship is exhausting. (Western services now seem so short.) But I have never enjoyed myself or laughed so much in my life. This has been a delight.
(4) That the outside world looks odder and odder. Partly this is because American culture has kept changing since I became Orthodox, while Orthodoxy has held still. Things which seemed unconscionable in our culture even ten years ago are now commonplace. But also the world seems stranger to me because Orthodoxy is even more countercultural than I ever imagined. In the western denominations, radical theology, pop worship, women’s ordination and “gay” rights are ever more the order of the day – while in Orthodoxy these things are still not even being debated, nor is there any sign that they will be.
The western secular world continues to think that politics and economics and education can solve our problems, and that a just society can be created by man without reference to God and his truth – while Orthodoxyis God and his truth. I watch the evening news and read non-Orthodox religious publications and just shake my head: what ever do these people think they’re doing? As an Orthodox I feel far less threatened by what’s going on outside the Church, and I find that now it makes me sad instead of angry – but the non-Orthodox world looks ever more peculiar to me.
Has there been any down side?
Scarcely any. Becoming Orthodox has been overwhelmingly a positive experience for me. However…
(1) For some of the reasons mentioned above, I’ve discovered that Orthodoxy is more difficult to communicate to our society than I would have guessed. At first I felt that if Americans could only be to exposed to Orthodoxy, they would rush into the Church. Certainly Orthodoxy is growing in the world – and our Antiochian Archdiocese has grown by leaps and bounds during the past ten years – but I also now see that many modern Americans find it hard to understand Orthodoxy. They are so accustomed to human-centered, man-made religion that they find it difficult even to grasp the concept of God-centered, revealed religion. Many do not see the purpose of worship. More than a few have come to our Orthodox services (even in English) and have no idea what’s going on. “Making America Orthodox” is not as easy as I thought.
(2) As I moved into Orthodoxy and discovered how good it is, for a while I felt unhappy that I had waited so long to become Orthodox. Why did I waste so much time in western Christianity trying to reinvent the wheel, when the real Church was here waiting for me all the while? I could have spent my whole ministry in the Church; we could have raised our children in the Orthodox faith. I’m still sad about this, but I’ve come to accept that God has his own timing, that he can use even my slowness and stupidity and stubbornness for good.
Would I do it all over again? Yes! Yes! Yes! These past ten years in Orthodoxy have been the best and happiest and most fulfilling of my life. Thanks to God and thanks to Saint Nicholas for bringing me home.