My Road to Orthodoxy
by Elizabeth Markovich
I was interested in religion from an early age. My grandmother first exposed me to real religious conviction. She was “First Christian” and quite involved. I read the New Testament and it really spoke to me – especially the words of Jesus. He seemed to be speaking about revolutionary change in oneself, an inner metamorphosis, and a radically different way of looking at the world. I did not see the same spirit reflected in the Christians and churches around me. I wondered if there were secrets I didn’t know yet – perhaps they would tell me in the commencement classes.
We went to a Presbyterian church most of the time and I went to commencement class there. I was taught the Protestant view of salvation. I was surprised there was so little to it. It just didn’t seem right that God was offended by Adam’s fall and continued to hold this against humanity. We were supposed to learn the Apostles creed. I had some questions about it – what was the Holy Catholic Church? I had to swear to this creed didn’t I? Apparently our leader was short on time and only said – “don’t worry, you won’t have to say it.” The day came and I indeed did have to stand with the group and say the creed. It seemed clear to me that they didn’t really care what I believed. Of course I was at the age when one so easily knows more than one’s elders. It was my last time attending that Presbyterian Church, I was 14.
After that I read widely – the Tibetan book of the Dead, the Bhagavad-Gita, some of the Book of Mormon, the Koran, and many others. I attended Unitarian church for a while. My parents didn’t have much to say about it all. I found a group studying G. I. Gurdjieff’s teachings. “The Work” was very compelling to me. I especially related to the writings of Maurice Nichol, as he used a Christian frame of reference. I liked the idea of the development and evolution of the soul. It seemed right that “The Divine” never changed but we could. The Gurdjieff group moved to New York. I was married by then and my husband was not so interested.
I found some spiritual support in Unity. Unity is a Protestant denomination. It is less traditional than many churches, but unlike the Unitarians, they believe they are applying Christ’s teachings. They are great believers in changing yourself through change in your thoughts and attitudes, and in spiritual evolution. I learned to work on my habitual thoughts and beliefs about others, and myself and realize that I was the only one I could change. I took lots of classes, was on the board. What began to bother me was the “you mix it and fix it yourself” aspect. People would often announce that they had invented a new ritual—written a prayer, lit candles, perhaps a group would carry this out. Essentially we were trying to uplift ourselves with very uncertain input from anything higher. We had no tradition of more experienced or advanced teachers. People did get some results, out of body experiences, strangely fortunate events, and “signs” – but where were these coming from? Were we the first or only humans to work on spiritual development? We studied and had some contacts with other traditions – Tibetan monks, etc. We felt they were all the same at the core. What had happened to the Christian tradition? Was the true teaching lost? I stayed with Unity because it did not contradict my inner voice (or contradict anything for that matter, since it is so open-ended) but knew there was something missing there.
My first conscious contact with Orthodox theology was a big surprise. My best friend in grade school was Greek and I had attended the Greek Orthodox Church with her, but it was very ethnic and, I think, even most of the members understood little about the theology. In fact I didn’t realize that I had seen some of these ideas before: Gurdjieff had incorporated many elements from his own Orthodox upbringing into his teachings.
Orthodoxy has always regarded salvation as coming both from our own efforts and help or “Grace” from above us. We must reach a level of some purity before we can understand and be reached by Divine Grace. They call the process Theosis or Deification. There are three phases: Purification, Illumination, and Deification. It is not that we become God, but we can draw closer and more attuned to the divine. The Orthodox define Sin as “missing the mark” in it’s original Greek meaning. We are separated from God and therefore are innately deviating from the Divine, therefore sinners. This is important to realize and humility is much valued, as we need to keep always in mind that we cannot progress or be saved form our own level, from our own efforts alone. Purification comes through fasting, prayer, and giving alms. Illumination comes from above – from God and divine persons. The original and genuine Christian tradition of Saints has also been preserved in Orthodoxy. They are examples and inspiration of those who have gone on the path before us and can help us. The monasteries provide a spiritually supportive environment and anchor. Orthodoxy also understands the human need for ritual in understanding. We are not just intellectual beings but also the body and senses and emotions. The services and practices involve the senses with icons, incense, kneeling and prostrations as well as involving the mind and heart in prayer, especially the repetitious “Jesus prayer”. The Orthodox life is actually structured to keep one aware of our goals, our souls’ mission. The week and the calendar commemorate the saints and events in Christ’s life and teaching constantly so we live through it each week and year.
Soon after I started attending the Orthodox liturgies, my old Greek Orthodox friend commented “you’ll appreciate the ‘green Patriarch’” – as they call the leader of all the Orthodox “jurisdictions” who is very active in environmental issues. They teach that humans are the stewards of the Earth, and have a responsibility for its welfare.
Though Orthodoxy resembles Catholicism on the surface, the meaning and emphasis is really quite different. To the Orthodox, God is not at all offended by mankind’s errors. Christ was sent because humanity could no longer be reached in any other way. The concept of salvation has a medical framework in Orthodoxy. The Church is said to be spiritual hospital. Since we have free will, God will not intervene except through our actions. We cannot judge the condition of others, or even know who may be saved or be in fact part of Christ’s Church. Orthodoxy does see itself as the truest preserved tradition of Jesus’ teachings, the continuation of his ministry, and the surest path for humankind to draw closer to God.
Historically, the Orthodox Church has continued without interruption and with little change for over 2000 years, miraculously surviving through the Byzantines, and when they fell to the Moslems, the Russian Church took up the standard. Just as Russia fell to communism, Russian missionaries brought Orthodoxy to America. Admittedly, Orthodoxy in America has many problems, especially with the confusion of many ethnic branches of the church. Historically and theologically there should be only one American Orthodox Church and the main focus should be on the spiritual life and salvation, and preservation of Christ’s teaching, not on preservation of ethnic traditions. No, the Church is not perfect, as humans are not perfect, but it’s good enough for me!