Becoming a Catechumen
by Fr. John Whiteford
Fr. Anthony Nelson invited my wife and me to tag along with him on a trip to Holy Trinity Monastery (the spiritual center of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR)), in Jordanville, New York, and the Synod Headquarters in New York City, and so we did. While in Jordanville, on July 24th (St. Olga’s day), I was made a catechumen. Fr. Anthony and I had talked about it, and my wife came to the point where she was OK with it. So Fr. Anthony asked for, and received permission to do the service in the monastery cathedral. Being made a catechumen has many similarities with the betrothal service, and this is intentional, because a catechumen is sort of betrothing himself to the Church. The commitment is made; however, the relationship is not yet consummated – but like a betrothal, it is a very big step.
Seeing upstate New York was a surprise to me. I had expected all of New York to be a rusted urban jungle, but upstate New York was very beautiful… nothing like the stereotypes I had in my mind. From Jordanville, we traveled to New York City, and in the pre-Giuliani days, graffiti was everywhere, and I saw where all those stereotypes about New York had come from. But when we arrived at Synod, it looked like a very nice part of New York, City. We went in, and there I got to meet for the first time the very kind and loving Metropolitan Hilarion, who was then the Bishop of Manhattan. After about an hour, we came back outside, and discovered that in broad daylight, our van had a window smashed out of it, and much of our luggage had been stolen.
Among the things that I lost was the Bible I had purchased as a Freshman, and had marked up, and so familiarized myself with that I knew what part of a page to look at to find a particular text. In some ways, this was another connection with my Protestant past that had been broken. On our way out of New York City, we were told by a guy at a gas station, who saw the broken glass and had been told about our stolen luggage,
“That’s what you get for parking in the city with out of state plates.”
To the Shores of Tripoli
Because I had come so far studying Orthodoxy on my own before I had filled my wife in on it, she had a lot of catching up to do. She was not closed minded on the subject of Orthodoxy, but she was also not going to convert just because it would make me happy. Over the years I have known people who assume that Asian women are all like the obedient and submissive Japanese wives they have seen in the movies. I have not gotten to know many Japanese women, but I have gotten to know many Chinese women, and they are not that way. I once worked as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant, and the owner’s wife, who was about five feet tall, and relatively thin, seriously offered to protect me when I had to deal with some rowdy customers (and I was at the time 6’2”, 190 lbs., and had been studying martial arts for 2 years). So I was under no illusions that my wife was going to convert for any reasons other than her own. I had hoped that I might be able to convince her over time with the arguments that had convinced me, but as the fall of 1990 began, I began to think that she might never convert. My wife said that on the day of judgment she would be the one who would have to answer for her decision, not me… and I could not argue with that.
My wife’s decision to convert or not to convert was a question that would decide whether or not I could eventually pursue becoming an Orthodox priest, because an Orthodox priest cannot be married to a non-Orthodox woman. The wife of an Orthodox priest is one flesh with her husband, and so has a share in the priesthood. The canonical requirements to be a priest’s wife are pretty much the same as they are to be a priest, aside from the question of one’s sex. The priest’s wife even has a similar title. In Greek custom, the priest’s wife is called “Presbytera” which is the feminine form of “Presbyter” (the Greek word for “Priest”). Arabs call a priest “Khoury” (which means “Priest”), and his wife “Khouriah” (again, the feminine form for Priest). Russians call a priest “Batiushka” (literally “little father”), and his wife is called “Matushka” (“little mother”). The Matushka of a parish has no liturgical role in a parish, but she does have a motherly role, and so this is why a priest cannot be married to someone who is not Orthodox. So faced with the likelihood that my wife’s decision to not convert would eliminate the possibility of becoming a Priest, I had to consider what else I might do with my life.
As it happened, the first Gulf War was on the horizon, and so I decided to join the military, for two reasons:
1) because, as the son of a World War II veteran, I felt like it was my turn; and
2) because if I couldn’t be a clergyman, I thought the next best thing would be to be a United States Marine.
No one knew beforehand that the war would be brief, and as one sided as it turned out to be. The media played up the strength and size of the Iraqi army, and many predicted that we would end up in a quagmire that would go one for many years. I was sworn in (in the same building that Timothy McVeigh would later blow up) in early November of 1990.
I had moved slowly up to this point, hoping to be baptized with my wife, but she was comfortable with my being baptized after I enlisted, because she knew I would shortly be going to boot camp, and would possibly be in a war soon thereafter. And so on November 10th, 1990, I was at long last baptized. It was a great joy to be able to fully participate in the services, and to receive communion for the first time on the following day. I prayed that my wife would eventually follow me, but I decided that I would only answer questions she asked, and not say anything that might seem like I was pushing her any further on the subject.
I had spent a great deal of time praying about my decision to enlist, and had spent a good bit of time getting advice on it, and thinking about it. But at the time, it seemed like the right thing to do, and I hoped that this was God’s will, but one of the things I had learned from the writings of Charles Finney was that it was a good idea to pray that God would thwart whatever you were doing, if it was not His will. So I prayed regularly that if it was not God’s will that I become a Marine, that He would not let it happen. While I was waiting to ship to boot camp, every month I had to attend a “poolee meeting.”
In January of 1991, the air war phase of the war was well underway, and a patriotic fervor was sweeping the nation. All the poolees gathered at the Marine recruiting station, and then we ran in formation to a nearby park. As we ran, with flags flying, people stopped to clap, to applaud, cars approvingly honked their horns. Once at the park, we exercised, got a taste of what our drill instructors would be dishing out at boot camp, and then played flag football. I had just finished college, and so was a bit older than most of the other guys, who were right out of high school. Many of them seemed intent on impressing their recruiters, and so were playing flag football more like regular football, but without the helmet and the pads. At one point, someone hit me from behind and I felt a slight pop in my lower back. At the time, I didn’t think much of it, but by the time we ran back to the recruiting station, I was in a lot of pain. I didn’t know it at the time, but God had answered my prayer.
The next day I could not sit, walk, or stand up without intense pain, and it wasn’t all that much better when I was lying down. I didn’t have health insurance – while in college I was supposed to have had it, but simply put on my forms that my insurance was covered by “YHWH, Inc”, and my policy number was “MT0817” – which was Matthew 8:17
“that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Isaiah the prophet, saying: “He Himself took our infirmities and bore our sicknesses”.
And although I had been sworn in, I was not active duty military (because I had not gone to boot camp yet) and so had no health benefits there either. So all I could do was go to a general practitioner and pay out of pocket, and unfortunately, he never had any idea what the problem was. He thought it was a pulled muscle, and prescribed some anti-inflammatory medications, and some pain killers… doses of 500 milligrams of Ibuprofen. One day it occurred to me that I normally took more than that for a good headache, and so it was no wonder that it was of little use. Days went into weeks, and weeks went into months, and there was only mild improvement. My date to ship to boot camp, kept getting reset, and in the meantime, the war ended.
At one point my wife tried a Chinese remedy that involved putting an herbal plaster on my lower back, and then placing boiled dog skin over it, to keep it there. When it was time to remove it, I discovered that this remedy was not designed for Caucasians with a lot of body hair. I ended up having to shave it off, and howled like the dog whose skin I had stuck to my back.
Curiously, one thing that did bring some relief was doing lots of prostrations. I found that if I did at least 50 prostrations a day, I had less pain, but if I failed to do it, my pain increased.
After a while, it seemed like the pain was becoming manageable, and I began to work on getting back into shape. But then while working out one day, I felt another pop, and then I was back to square one. Soon thereafter, I came to the conclusion that I was not going to be able to go to boot camp, and then, after having to get my congressman to press the question, I was finally able to get the Military to release me from my enlistment. It took about another year for my back problem to mostly go away (though it still gives me some grief to this day). When I finally did get health insurance years later, I was told that I had hyper-extended a semi moveable joint in my lower back.
But all of this turned out to be providential. The change in the direction of my plans took the pressure off of my wife to make a decision. Also, my mother moved in with me that summer, and her continued efforts to talk me out of Orthodoxy helped talk my wife into it. And all the while, she had continued to attend services with me, and after the Lamentation Service of Holy Saturday, 1991, she was so deeply moved, that she informed me that she wanted to be baptized. She was baptized on Bright Saturday, the following week, which was another unexpected answer to prayer.