by Misty Duke
My journey home to the Orthodox Church began in my youth. I don’t remember the year, but I know it was a tender one. I remember an old priest in brightly colored vestments, a beautiful church with walls covered in icons, and young girls wearing headscarves approaching the communion chalice. Glory to God for that moment in front of my parents’ television for through that moment I unknowingly glimpsed my future. Some twenty years have passed, but that memory is as real today as when it happened.
Sometimes it feels like the journey home to Orthodoxy was long. Sometimes, I wonder why I didn’t grow up in the Orthodox Church or why God didn’t place me in a town where there was an Orthodox parish so I could’ve stepped through her doors at an earlier age. But, I am confident that God has led me to where I am and that He transformed those thirty-two years as a Protestant into a yearning for more of Him.
I grew up Baptist under the care of parents devoted to rearing me in the Christian faith. My parents ensured I attended church, read the scriptures, was baptized, and conducted myself in a manner befitting a good, Christian girl. To them I am forever indebted for giving me a spiritual heritage I will cherish all my days. It was that Christian foundation they provided me with that would sustain me in my search for my church home.
After high school, I moved away for college, moved again for my first job, then married my best friend. I wandered from Baptist churches, to Methodist, to Pentecostal, to finally settling in a non-denominational church. But, I never felt at home. I often wondered why Protestant churches were void of images of our Lord and the saints, why some Protestants forbade the baptism of infants and little children, why I rarely heard Mary’s name mentioned, why many Protestants viewed the Last Supper as a symbol but not our Lord’s actual Body and Blood, why some Protestants said we could lose our salvation but others said we could only be saved once, and why, if I was a member of the body of Christ, I didn’t feel as though I was a part of anything bigger than the local church I attended.
The journey home to the Orthodox Church picked up speed, surprisingly enough, on a Baptist mission trip to Nicaragua in the summer of 2006. There I met some of the most wonderful, Christ-centered people I had ever encountered. Despite living in physical poverty, these Nicaraguans’ hearts were rich with Divine Love. Their eyes burned brightly with desire to more intimately know the One whose praises they sang. But, despite the beauty and faith of the people I met, I questioned my faith and my actions in that remote Nicaraguan village. Once again, I felt as though I was disconnected from the body of Christ. We witnessed to the people, encouraged them to commit their lives to Christ, but we didn’t baptize them or instruct them in the Christian life. Instead, we left those matters to the discretion of the village pastor. I wondered if these new believers would be ministered to consistent with the Baptist beliefs I was taught. I wondered why my Baptist beliefs differed from other Protestants who were evangelizing that tiny nation at the same time as we were there. Where was the unity of belief that Christ mentioned when he prayed that we would be one as he and the Father are one? Something was missing in our evangelization. Six months later I would glimpse what had been missing, the Church.
I’ve heard many say that television is, at worst, evil and, at best, a waste of time. But, I can confidently say that television prompted my journey home to the Orthodox Church, from that first glimpse of Orthodoxy on my parents’ television to my next glimpse of the Church through the Roman Catholic faith on EWTN. One evening, while flipping through the channels during early 2007, I paused on EWTN and listened to a priest whose name I had never heard but would soon learn was the most famous Catholic in American history, Bishop Fulton J. Sheen. He taught the faith as though he were a man of higher learning who knew how to communicate to the average person. I set aside time to watch him every week. I bought his books and poured over every word trying to grasp the meaning of everything he was trying to communicate. I was puzzled by his love for Mary and his dedication of every teaching to Jesus, Mary and Joseph. I knew Mary and Joseph were our Lord’s parents. I heard them mentioned at Christmas. But, Bishop Sheen dedicated every teaching to two people whom I knew little about.
Six months passed and I got up the courage to enroll in catechism class at a nearby Catholic Church. There, in that class, I began to see the scriptures in the context of what was missing from my mission trip to Nicaragua, the Church. And I began to see the most mysterious woman in all of Christendom, Mary. Bishop Sheen said our Lord gave three years to his ministry but he gave ten times that to his mother. If Sheen’s statement is true, despite the scriptures being silent about so many of our Lord’s precious years on this earth, then how could I do no less than contemplate the woman whose body contained the Uncontainable God, whose arms cradled Eternity, and whose very body nourished the Fount of Immortality that in due season would nourish me? But, for me, something was missing in Roman Catholicism. Yes, there was beauty there. There was a reverence for the Holy Family. There were sacraments. There was history. There was Peter. But, I couldn’t pursue Catholicism. Six months into the class I withdrew to ponder what I had learned.
A few weeks after withdrawing from catechism class, a coworker encouraged me to enroll in Greek class at the local Greek Orthodox Church. I expected only to learn about the language, food, and culture of Greece. But the kind, old Greek priest who taught our class had other plans. Father Vieron taught us the typical subjects of any language class, but he focused on teaching us the Lord’s Prayer in Greek. Believers and non-believers alike stammered through the prayer applying sounds to unfamiliar letters, thus forming the words that our Lord prayed. Father Vieron promised us that we would never forget this prayer. He was right. I never forgot it. And I never forgot the emotion that welled up in his eyes upon hearing each of his students say the Lord’s Prayer. His eyes became misty, and his face filled with awe. It was then that I knew his intent in teaching this class. He was evangelizing, but not in any way I had ever seen.
While growing up Baptist, I learned that in order to evangelize we must first live the faith – be good Christians – and secondly we should tell others that because we are guilty of sin God sent His Son to die for us. But, Father Vieron’s approach was different, for how better to soften the heart than to repeat the words of our Lord? If our lips say those words often enough, eventually our hearts will follow. And, so, my heart followed.
Nearing the end of the semester, Father Vieron surprised me yet again. One evening in class he stopped mid-sentence and said,
“I can comprehend the Resurrection. But, the Incarnation, how God loved us so much that He humbled Himself to become one of us, I cannot comprehend.”
Those words dangled in front of my eyes as though they were Divine Fruit that my lips longed to taste. And, so this would be my first desire to know the incarnate God, not the crucified God whom I had forever felt guilty for nailing to that cross, but the incarnate God who loved us so much that He humbled Himself to become one of us.
A month later Greek class drew to a close, and we celebrated our accomplishments. Despite those accomplishments, I couldn’t forget the Greek priest’s words. A few weeks later I enrolled in catechism class at the local Antiochian Orthodox Church. It was there that I saw Her, the Church, the one, visible body of Christ. In Her Divine Liturgy, the saints and angels enjoin our worship. We pray as one body, raising our voices to heaven in unison. The weakest among us receive a new birth in Christ. And the youngest to the oldest are invited to dine at our Lord’s table. I didn’t leave Peter behind when I withdrew from Catholic catechism class. Peter was in Antioch, too, as was Paul. And, that mysterious woman whose face I saw daily in the icon given to me from Father Vieron was there, too. In fact, everything that was missing had been found. And, there at that parish I met many people who had taken the same journey I was on.
If asked what my impetus was for moving forward with Orthodoxy I would, without doubt, say it was our Lord’s mother. She had been my greatest stumbling block. She was the one I had judged for so many years, despite knowing so little about her. Upon seeing Mary in the ancient Church, I saw that she was always pointing us to her Son. She was not just a virgin who bore God’s Son. She bore God in the flesh, giving to Him her substance so that our eyes could see Him, our ears could hear Him, and our bodies and souls could be healed by Him. She is the Theotokos.
It was at that moment, when I saw Mary with my spiritual eyes, that the scales fell off and everything my Protestant eyes couldn’t see suddenly seemed so clear. Yes, Mary is the Mother of God, for who is God but the Lord! Yes, our church buildings should be beautifully adorned, for what bride doesn’t adorn herself for her wedding! Yes, we should baptize infants, for baptism is the new circumcision and out of the mouths of babes and sucklings God has perfected praise! Yes, we should partake of our Lord’s body and blood, for without Him we will starve.
Eight months after beginning to attend Divine Liturgy I enrolled as a catechumen. I felt as though I was standing in the dark on the edge of a cliff and was being told to jump. There was no voice, only silence and darkness. But, I jumped anyway. Four months later, at Pentecost, I was chrismated. At the moment I stepped up onto the solea I knew I was stepping toward the edge of the universe, toward the edge of all that was known and was plunging into the unknown. It was, for a moment, terrifying. Knowing that even one molecule of chrism that had touched the earliest Christians, perhaps the Apostles, had also touched me filled me with the most overwhelming feelings of unworthiness yet gratitude for this heavenly banquet to which I had been invited by the Creator Himself.
Almost two years have passed since my chrismation and I haven’t turned back. I don’t know where I would go if I turned away. Here in the Orthodox Church heaven and earth meet. Here I have finally found peace.