by R. Leo Olson
In this excerpt from his memoir, Unlearning God, R. Leo Olson describes his conversion to Orthodoxy from a Protestant fundamentalism as a process of healing from his “spiritual head injuries” and unlearning a problematic understanding of God.
Part of unlearning the conception of God that I had picked up in my fundamentalist Protestant upbringing has been to figure out how to talk about the understanding of God in the Orthodox Church, her different spirituality, and sometimes the ethnocentric life within her. How could I describe what I was experiencing and then tell others, without shredding the spirituality of people from my past? I thought that, rather than try to explain everything, perhaps I should invite them to come and see for themselves. It worked for me.
The first couple of times I invited some of my Protestant friends and family, the service was not entirely in English – a little Greek or Arabic was explainable and acceptable. When a real live bishop was coming to visit, I broke out the first-century letters from St. Ignatius and boasted about how the mystical and true Church manifests itself in a special way when the bishop is present. Some of my seeker friends were excited about this and decided to come and visit.
Of course, the bishop chose to chant almost the entire service in Arabic. I was defeated. I was experiencing a real, incarnational relationship with God and yet could not explain to others why whole parts of the Divine Liturgy were in a different language. I wanted Orthodoxy to be the faith tradition for them, where they could find meaning, healing and encounter God in a real “come-and-see-for-yourself” way. Which language was spoken became a real issue for me as it does for most Protestant seekers and seasoned converts.
I felt like such an American elitist when I demanded the services be entirely in English from my priest. I told him I knew I needed to embrace Orthodox spirituality and worship but could not, would not, if I had to learn Arabic, Russian or Greek.
I’m an American, for God’s sake; why do I need to learn a new language?
I realized that I was still suffering from a spiritual “head injury” of pride.
I had invited some of my siblings to come to a Christmas Eve service. My brothers and sisters are quite a bit younger than me, and for the most part are products of a mixed Pentecostal/Baptist Christian tradition. Most of them were working through their own “unlearning” of God, but had not taken their faith seriously since they left the practices and faith communities of their own childhood.
They knew I had moved to a different church and suspected that it was a totally different religion. So what better way to show them original Christianity than to invite them to an Orthodox service before a Christmas family party? I mean Christmas is about the birth of Jesus and who He is and why He was born – to save us. I thought that, if I could start with that fundamental truth, this would serve as a foundation for other conversations with them.
We met at my house before the service because I wanted to prepare them, pre-proselytize them, if you will. I had an arsenal of articles, magic Gillquist pamphlets and timelines of church history. I talked for an hour. I was eloquent. I was smooth. I was channeling St. John Chrysostom. 
This turned out to be a horrible idea, grossly misjudged by me. I anticipated some of the normal questions about “high church” liturgics, chanting, and icons, and why St. George is slaying a dinosaur like a character from Dungeons and Dragons. I even tackled the “venerational” kissing of icons as not idolatrous. I told them it’s like kissing a picture of Grandma who had Jesus in her heart and thereby reverencing the work of the Holy Spirit, not worshipping Kodak. I could tell I was speaking a foreign language to them and they suspected spiritual trickery of me.
We caravanned to the service. I knew my brother did not want to go to my church because he did not listen to my pre-emptive lecture trying desperately to translate Orthodoxy into his world. But he was forced to attend due to family pressure. We all stood in the back pew of the darkened nave and my brother sat down after one psalm was read, put his hat on and pulled it down low over his eyes. He had checked out seven minutes into the service. The rest of my siblings were wide-eyed, confused and feeling self-conscious that they were under-dressed.
An older gentleman from our parish made his way over to us from the very front and asked my brother to take off his hat. This experience was so horrible for me, I went inside my head and silently recited “Lord have mercy” over and over as fast as I could to get away from my embarrassment.
My brother did take off his hat but did not stand up. He folded his arms with verve and his stubbornness set in. I knew he would endure this Orthodox service once but never again. I recognized this inner passive revolt because we have the same spiritual “head injuries.” I also knew it was hopeless to try and fix this but I leaned down to him anyway and half apologizing and half wanting to punch him in the neck for acting like a jerk, asked,
“So pretty different, hey? What do you think so far?”
He looked up at me and asked,
“What language is this?”
I couldn’t help but laugh and answered,
“Um, it’s English. The whole thing has been in English so far.”
He rolled his eyes and waited the service out. There was “no room at the inn” for my brother, and I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t have stayed at Hotel Orthodoxy if a room was offered. He has never been back and we have not discussed Orthodoxy or God since.
We had a priest who was born in Syria. He spoke English very well, with a slight accent but definitely bi-lingual, and probably still dreamt in Arabic. Our family loved him even though his stay was brief at our parish. Sometimes during the Divine Liturgy he would read the priestly prayers in Arabic. These prayers are supposed to be silent, according to the red service book in the pew, but most priests say them quietly. It’s a fun “cultural” experience to try and follow along as Arabic is being read by the priest right to left and in the book it’s written left to right in English. However, on this particular Sunday morning, it was more than just the silent prayers of the priest; he was going off in Arabic, almost the whole service. My wife could tell bees were buzzing around my head during the service about this issue.
Soon after joining this ancient and sacred tradition of worship I was able to formulate my own sinful nit-pickings. It happens to everyone. We all have those molehills of which we make mountains from time to time. Arabic dominating the services was mine. I was in desperate need of healing and my whole inner life revolved around learning Orthodox worship, not language lessons. Over half way through the Divine Liturgy our priest was still not using English. I leaned forward and asked a woman in front of us, of Palestinian descent, “What is he saying?”
This was very bad of me. I knew there was no good to come from asking this. As an immigrant she didn’t catch the frustrated American sarcasm of my spiritual head injuries coming out – thank God. But my wife knew full well where my heart was and I could feel her stare in the back of my head.
The woman, leaned back and said,
“I don’t know. I can’t understand his accent.”
I laughed through my nose and leaned back. My wife looked at me with eyes that said,
“I had crossed the line.” I whispered to her, “Even she doesn’t know what the heck language this is.”
Her eyes steeled and she replied,
“You’ve got a problem and you should watch your own language before you critique the priest.”
Afterward, I spoke to the priest about his “over-use” of Arabic in the service. I told him I come here to worship and Arabic is a problem for me. I don’t know what you are saying up there. I could tell he sensed a spiritual head injury in my tone.
“Habibi, (loved one in Arabic) was God praised and glorified today, even if you didn’t know the words?” he asked.
He smiled at me without another word of correction needed. I smiled back, full of inner shame that I let my spiritual head injuries lash out like that.
Flashback a few years when my wife and I wanted to visit every parish in town before choosing one to join – that horrible predicament for converts; we had to judge parishes by our own likes and dislikes. We had all but decided to join St. Nicholas, but there was one more parish in town we hadn’t visited. So we did.
Fr. John Estephan, may he rest in peace, was the priest. Fr. John was a highly educated man. He held two doctorates, one in the history of the Middle East and the other in anthropology. He was an ambassador to Lebanon from Mexico, spoke five different languages, of which English was his last and least fluent. He was a priest who had served our city for decades and when he fell asleep in the Lord a couple of years ago, the true fruits of his ministry were seen by all.
As I say, however, English was the last of his languages and he spoke with a thick accent. The Liturgy was great and the choir was grand. Orthodox worship with its ancient ritual and minor toned chanting often transports everyone to a mystical manifestation of the Kingdom of God. I was raptured in spiritual revelry. Then came the homily. Fr. John walked slowly to the podium with many notes and started preaching in English for the most part. He would explain something in Arabic and then in English. It was like he was the speaker and translator for his own sermon. Towards the end of the sermon, he pounded his fist into the podium and said,
“If you are not grateful – you are not Christian! How can you say you love someone and not be grateful to them?”
That was all I needed to hear or understand from Fr. John Estephan. We did not choose St. George as a parish because of the “language issue” on our horrible parish evaluation list of “likes and dislikes.” To this day, however, many years later, I have not forgotten the simple truth of those twenty-two words from Fr. John.
St. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 13 – the “love chapter” quoted in almost every marriage ceremony –
“Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I have become sounding brass or a clanging cymbal” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
I was the one spiritually injured with the “language issue,” not Orthodoxy. Truth transcends language. Orthodox worship engages all the faculties and senses of a person: touch, taste, smell, feel, hearing, mind, and soul.
My spiritual head injuries deformed my idea of worship because it was hyper-cerebral and still self-centered. If I didn’t understand the language, then it was of no use to me. I demanded Orthodoxy conform to me and my American way of thinking, rather than let it transform me through the universal language of God – love. I had become a “clanging symbol” to those around me by proudly demanding English-only.
The shining light of truth and the healing spiritual medicine of love, known in Orthodoxy, made its way to the
“land of the free and the home of the brave”
not by religious crusade or a movement of rational enlightenment, but by way of immigrants. Many risked their own lives and forsook all they owned, their loved ones, and all they knew about life to come here to America. They brought with them the most ancient expression of Christianity and worshipped in spirit and in truth the only way they knew how and in the language they spoke. Who was I to demand the terms and conditions of God’s blessings of Orthodox worship? I had a Jonah complex and that didn’t work out so well for Jonah when he didn’t agree with God about the Ninevites. 
I don’t know how many times I’ve said,
“I wish I knew another language?”
Well, I can sample Arabic and Greek and Russian anytime I want. And, unlike my years of studying swear words in French and Spanish classes, I get to learn the very best words in those languages and sing “Lord have mercy” or shout “Christ is risen!” at Easter in multiple languages. To learn the words of praise to our Lord in another language is a great privilege. I am grateful for different languages now. Healing from spiritual head injuries requires the closing of a myopic eye and an openhearted, grateful embrace of someone else and sometimes an entire culture. Orthodoxy is here in America, but it is wrapped in a cultural wrapping paper like a Christmas present.
When I reflect on the language issue now, I remember when my brother didn’t even recognize English in that Christmas Eve service. I spoke so many words to him before he visited. I made biblical arguments about how the Church came before the Bible. I used hollow-point long-range bullets to shoot down praise bands and “pep rally” worship. I said this … Bang! I said that … Fire in the hole! I, I, I – and none of it mattered, because there was no love in my words, no gratefulness. He heard only clanging symbols on that Christmas Eve.
When I am truly grateful for the Lord’s gift of Orthodoxy, instead of demanding He tell me He loves me in English only, my cold Jonah-like heart warms. I begin to truly love other people and all their customs, values and even their languages. I begin to heal. Twenty-two words from Fr. John would have saved me years of frustration and aided my spiritual therapeutic needs; if only I would have had ears to hear then. I would rather say seven true words of faith, hope and love in any language than thousands of my own words that don’t mean anything in the end.
At Pascha (Easter), every patriarch, bishop and priest stands in front of the holy altar of God and proclaims to all,
“Christ is risen!”
– the only hope of healing for people with spiritual head injuries and salvation for humankind. The people from around the world shout back,
“Truly He is risen!”
And I am among them. What else is there to know, understand or believe?
Jesus Christ, love incarnate, conquered sin, death and Hades for all people, no matter where they were born or what language they spoke. It is with gratefulness that I stand every Pascha with Orthodox Christians worldwide and mystically with every Christian since the myrrh-bearing women at the tomb discovered it empty, and shout the greatest cosmic archetype mystery of faith, hope and love that the universe has ever heard:
Christ is Risen! Truly He is Risen!
Albanian: Krishti U Ngjall! Vertet U Ngjall!
Aleut: Khristus anahgrecum!Alhecum anahgrecum!
Alutuq: Khris-tusaq ung-uixtuq! Pijiinuq ung-uixtuq!
Amharic: Kristos tenestwal! Bergit tenestwal!
Anglo-Saxon: Crist aras! Crist sodhlice aras!
Arabic: L’Messieh kahm! Hakken kahm!
Armenian: Kristos haryav ee merelotz!Orhnial eh
Aroman: Hristolu unghia! Daleehira unghia!
Athabascan: Xristosi banuytashtch’ey!Gheli banuytashtch’ey!
Bulgarian: Hristos voskrese! Vo istina voskrese!
Byelorussian: Khristos uvoskros!Zaprowdu uvoskros!
Chinese: Helisituosi fuhuole!Queshi fuhuole!
(Cantonese): Gaydolk folkwoot leew! Ta koksut folkwoot leew!
(Mandarin): Ji-du fu-huo-le!Zhen-de Ta fu-huo-le!
Coptic: Pi-ekhristos Aftonf! Khen oomethmi Aftonf!
Czech: Kristus vstal a mrtvych!Opravdi vstoupil!
Danish: Kristus er opstanden!Kristus er opstanden!
Dutch: Christus is opgestaan! Ja, hij is waarlijk opgestaan!
Eritrean-Tigre: Christos tensiou!Bahake tensiou!
Esperanto: Kristo levigis! Vere levigis!
Estonian: Kristus on oolestoosunt!Toayestee on oolestoosunt!
Ethiopian: Christos t’ensah em’ muhtan!Exai’ ab-her eokala!
Finnish: Kristus nousi kuolleista!Totistesti nousi!
French: Le Christ est réssuscité! En verite il est réssuscité!
Gaelic: Kriost eirgim! Eirgim!
Georgian: Kriste ahzdkhah!Chezdmaridet!
German: Christus ist erstanden! Er ist wahrhaftig erstanden!
Greek: Christos anesti! Alithos anesti!
Hawaiian: Ua ala hou `o Kristo! Ua ala `I `o no `oia!
Hebrew: Ha Masheeha houh kam! A ken kam! (or Be emet quam!)
Icelandic: Kristur er upprisinn! Hann er vissulega upprisinn!
Indonesian: Kristus telah bangkit!Benar dia telah bangkit!
Italian: Cristo e’ risorto! Veramente e’ risorto!
Japanese: Harisutosu siochatsu!Makoto-ni siochatsu!
Javanese: Kristus sampun wungu!Saesto panjene ganipun sampun wungu!
Korean: Kristo gesso! Buhar ha sho nay!
Latin: Christus resurrexit! Vere resurrexit!
Latvian: Kristus ir augsham sales!Teyasham ir augsham sales vinsch!
Lugandan: Kristo ajukkide! Amajim ajukkide!Malayalam
(Indian): Christu uyirthezhunnettu!Theerchayayum uyirthezhunnettu!
Nigerian: Jesu Kristi ebiliwo! Eziao’ biliwo!
Norwegian: Kristus er oppstanden! Han er sannelig oppstanden!
Polish: Khristus zmartvikstau!Zaiste zmartvikstau!
Portugese: Cristo ressuscitou! Em verdade ressuscitou!
Romanian: Hristos a inviat!Adevarat a inviat!
Russian: Khristos voskrese!Voistinu voskrese!
Sanskrit: Kristo’pastitaha! Satvam upastitaha!
Serbian: Cristos vaskres! Vaistinu vaskres!
Slovak: Kristus vstal zmr’tvych!Skutoc ne vstal!
Spanish: Cristos ha resucitado! En verdad ha resucitado!
Swahili: Kristo amefufukka! Kweli Amefufukka!
Swedish: Christus ar uppstanden!Han ar verkligen uppstanden!
Syriac: M’shee ho dkom! Ha koo qam!
Tlingit: Xristos Kuxwoo-digoot!Xegaa-kux Kuxwoo-digoot!
Turkish: Hristos diril-di! Hakikaten diril-di!
Ugandan: Kristo ajukkide! Kweli ajukkide!
Ukranian: Khristos voskres!Voistinu voskres!
Welsh: Atgyfododd Crist!Atgyfododd in wir!
Yupik: Xristusaq Unguixtuq!Iluumun Ung-uixtuq!
Zulu: Ukristu uvukile! Uvukile kuphela!
 St. John Chrysostom (347-407 A.D.) was known for his eloquence in preaching and public speaking, and assembling the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. He was given the Greek epithet chrysostomos, meaning “golden-mouthed.”
 Jonah was the reluctant prophet of God. He did not want to share God’s message with a foreign people. After being swallowed by a fish and vomited on a beach, he angrily preached God’s message then went on a hill to watch the Ninevites burn. They repented. Jonah was consumed with anger at God’s mercy on a foreign people. He was even annoyed with God about the plant that shaded him, but then died, no longer providing him shade while he hoped for Nineveh’s destruction (Jonah 4).
Peter James says
Great article. One small correction. The Welsh should be “atgyfofodd yn wir” not “in wir”
Fr. John says
Thank you, Peter!
Patrick Williams says
Well written and enjoyable to read. I converted to Orthodoxy into the Coptic Orthodox Church (Egyptian) and eventually left due to the language and cultural issues and now attend an OCA Church (happily). While I do agree with you that the language of love is universal, I would still say that each culture has the right to worship God in their language, culture and ethos. The Egyptians worship in Coptic and Arabic since that is their ancestral and native language and the other Churches do the same. In my opinion, the Orthodox Church should give the ancient Pearl of Orthodoxy to each culture in their native language, culture and ethos (if it is a missionary Church, if it is an immigrant church serving immigrants, then it should retain the language of the immigrant population). Anyway, good article but I do not think you were wrong to want to have the liturgy in your own language – even St. Paul said he would rather speak 5 words that were understandable to people than 10,000 words in unintelligible tongues.
Pauline Pujol says
This is a politically correct article. Folks, this is A M E R I C A, NOT RUSSIA, GREECE, ROMANIA, MIDDLE EAST. I find it boring, distracting, and disrespectful to go to church and have the priest speak in a foreign language. The Orthodox Church claims to be the original and only true Christian Church. YOU BETTER DO A MUCH BETTER JOB EVANGELIZING.
Remember those One World of Sharing boxes Protestant kiddies filled up with odd coins and monies from allowance during Lent back in the day? If you admit this, you can do it quietly because you might be dating yourself. On them were all sorts of phrases about loving the world, all peoples, all in a variety of languages. During the 60’s the concentration was on the countries of the Communist Bloc, being they were so godless and all. Sometime in the two or three weeks before Easter we’d have groups visit from the various ethnic traditions, including our own hometown’s sister cities. This was tough, because i grew up in St. Paul where ethnic meant someone with dark hair. Diversity meant Lutherans mingling with Presbyterians. Seriously.
I look at learning languages as similar to the Roman Catholics before their mass went all English after Vatican II. Latin was needed to worship in their churches, and when I visited the Catholic church down the road with my best friend, I needed Latin to know when to stand. Being Presbyterian, I was informed kneeling wouldn’t do me any good as my salvation was pretty much a lost cause unless God changed His mind about Calvin.
I learned a smattering of Russian from my various violin teachers, but they generally used the language when I messed up. As a result, I learned mostly phrases that would never be heard in any church. I have also learned that Greek is a great thing to learn, because when I want to read the original New Testament, it helps to know what was written and how the grammar may or may not accurately reflect the reality of that beautiful language. Bonus: you get really high quality gyros ordering in Greek, no matter how trashed your accent might be. As for Arabic, forget about ever reading the calligraphic stuff on walls, because the art totally removes clarity unless you really understand nuance. Yet, a few phrases here and there are wonderful to know, and the language and grammar is much simpler for almost every language, when compared to English. I love the music of it, and look on unknown languages as a new adventure into the great unknown of communicating with friends I’ve not been introduced to, yet.
Patristic Anglican says
And this is why I remain a Continuing Anglican.
Fr. John says
Patristic Anglican, if this really is the reason you haven’t joined the Orthodox Church, then you have a great deal more issues that ‘language’ keeping you back. Anglicanism is just as, if not even more, ethnic than immigrant Orthodox communities, but often you have to be on the outside looking in to see it. Having come out of the Anglican communion myself, I know the challenges Anglicans face, but Anglicans make great Orthodox precisely because they don’t shy away from struggle and sacrifice for truth.
matushka constantina says
I really enjoyed reading this. Thank you for posting it!
Pauline Pujol, Divine Liturgy is not an evangelistic tool, it is a worship service for the initiated; some of those initiated speak different languages (and often don’t understand English very well). It is not for proselytizing. We evangelize by living Christ-centered lives, keeping the Commandments and loving our neighbour. In the Divine Liturgy a great mystery takes place that is not for everyone. That is why the priest says “Catechumins depart”. Those who are not Orthodox Christians should depart at that time so that they can receive the mystery when they’re ready, not beforehand. It is not the language of the Divine Liturgy that needs to change, it is us who project ideas from our own backgrounds unto something else that need to change.
Randy Evans says
It is certainly possible to exchange one “head injury” for another. Is this what the author is expressing without meaning to? >>I demanded Orthodoxy conform to me and my American way of thinking, rather than let it transform me through the universal language of God – love. I had become a “clanging symbol” to those around me by proudly demanding English-only.<< The only thing which I find inappropriate in that sentence, which the author agrees with, was his "demanding" something. Demanding is full of passion, never of Christ. But I must wonder why Sts. Cyril and Methodius bothered with creating a new alphabet and language since, hey, the universal language of God is love.
What I find tedious and off-putting is the insinuation, either overt or passive-aggressive, that any humble and heartfelt critique of how holy Orthodoxy is expressed in America is somehow "prideful." I wonder if St. Paul was told by St. Peter and others at the Acts 15 council that he was just "being prideful" when he attempted to explain how the Holy Spirit was being given to non-circumcised Gentiles. Acts 15:2 states that the issue brought up by the Judaizers from Judea and Antioch "brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them." I don't think pride was the issue causing the sharp debate – it was inappropriate and unnecessary thinking hindering the spread of the Gospel of Christ to non-Jews.
My parish is a wonderful blessing to my Protestant-convert family, Romanian episcopate of the OCA. Our priest and cantor will pray 3, or at the most 4 short prayers or tropars in Romanian during the service which otherwise is in English. I find it, by God's grace, appropriately accessible to any in our culture who are seeking Truth and Salvation and Healing in the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Unfortunately in any number of other Orthodox contexts around the country, many genuinely protestant seekers are made to feel that becoming Orthodox requires first becoming some other ethnicity. Talk about a "head injury." Why does anyone still wonder why "Orthodoxy is the best kept secret in America?" The Acts 15 council ended with St. James, 1st bishop of Jerusalem standing up and stating, among other things: "It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God." Pray for us, St. James, that all dear Orthodox believers living in our American culture will learn to stop "making it difficult for some to turn to God."
Charles Bivens says
Dear Fr. John.
It says “Speak your mind” at the top so here goes. All said in love, but with a GREAT degree of disappointment and frustration. Bear with me please.
It sounds nice but the author contradicts the biblical witness and Apostolic Tradition.
Acts 2:6 “A crowd came together in bewilderment , because each one heard them speaking in his own language.”
Acts 2:11 “We hear them declaring the wonders of God in our own tongue.”
Acts 21: 37 “May I say something to you?” “Do you speak Greek?” he replied.
Acts 22:2 :” they heard him speak to them in Aramaic they became very quite.”
1 Cor 14:11 “If then I do not grasp the meaning of what someone is saying, I am a foreigner to the speaker, and he is a foreigner to me.”
1 Cor 14:19 “in the Church I would rather speak five intelligible words to instruct others than ten thousand words in a tongue.”
Theologically I am quite attracted to Orthodoxy. I am even becoming convinced of its claims. I find the history, expansion, heart and soul of the Orthodox Church to be the heart and soul of Christ. I find its doctrine true.
However, this article is the problem with Orthodoxy in North America. Until the Orthodox Church takes the gospel commission seriously and communicates its message in the language of the people, an insurmountable barrier remains for the conversion of the majority. It seems that preservation of the many ethnic cultures and languages among the ethnic Orthodox is far more important than actually spreading the good news. When you demand that the culture you are in must adapt to your own language and customs to worship God, you make a travesty of the Incarnational love of Christ. It is ethnocentricism at its core.
The liturgy needs to be in the language of the people. In the Incarnation Christ became man. Fully. He was Jewish. Fully. He spoke Hebrew to Hebrew people. Fully. He did not speak Latin to Jews and then piously say that “God was praised” whether they understood it or not. The priest in the article may have praised God in Arabic but the author did not. It was problematic for him, his family, and the masses of people in North America including the children and grandchildren of the immigrants in these ethnic Churches.
Now I certainly believe there needs to be Orthodox Churches for the immigrant population with the liturgy in Greek and Arabic and so on. My disappointment is in the fact that there are so few churches with the liturgy in English and, I have to wonder, is this really on the radar? I mean is the Church focusing on starting truly American congregations with the liturgy in English and the culture American?
So in summary, I believe the author is simply changing one head injury for another. Until Orthodoxy gets serious about reaching America then travesties like the one above will continue to abound.
Fr. John says
Charles – agreed! Although with a few exceptions, there are a massive number of parishes using exclusively the language the people understand.
I posted this precisely because, although it is one mans’ memoir, that does not mean his opinions are universal – or even correct, but his opinions. I think it is important to remember, neither the Orthodox, nor Orthodox converts (just like Orthodox inquirers) come in one flavor, or have one opinion. Journey To Orthodoxy was started for just this reason – to show inquirers that just because they didn’t match one person’s experience, doesn’t mean they are experiencing the right thing, or the real thing. Well written, and yes – until there is a more serious attempt (like JTO – please support us!) to do things right, anyone and everyone will be making up their own reasons for everything.
Ann Asher says
This is a lovely excerpt and I can relate. Although it is my husband who tries to school everyone and myself who says just come, listen with your heart. Further difference is we are taking about the traditional latin liturgy of Roman Catholics. But it is encouraging to me, as I prepare to attend my second Orthodox Divine Liturgy this weekend. At least this time I know what to anticipate as the catharsis in my soul whereas before I didn’t – and this excerpt says I’m not alone !
Paul-Joseph Stines says
I can relate; and I am about the least politically correct person you can imagine. When I finally decided that I had to leave the Roman Catholic Church, I knew there was only one last stop on the train. I began to attend an Antiochian Orthodox church where the liturgy was all in English. It was beautifully done. After I a few months I had made my decision and become a Catechumen. Then, feeling especially brave one Sunday, I decided to attend the Liturgy at a Greek Orthodox Church. The Liturgy is about 60% Greek and the remainder is in English, except the Lord’s Prayer which is done in about 9 different languages reflecting the diversity of the parish. The chanting was beautiful. Its deep baritones have a totally different atmosphere from the light airy chanting of the Antiochian parish. But I couldn’t understand much. This was not for me.
I returned to the Antiochian parish. But I found I missed the Greek Liturgy. So I went back. And then I went back again. And I was hooked. I understand a little more than I did at first and I hope to one day be able to pray along with the entire liturgy in Greek and English. It takes some work, but it’s worth the effort. But you’d better not try to make me speak Greek at the convenience store!
Fr. John says
Paul-Joseph, you are evidently unaware that the Greek used liturgically is not understood even by Greeks. It is 4th century Greek. No one understands anything more than a few phrases. In other words, you’ll never be able to pray the entire liturgy in 4th century Greek. No one does. They simply recite the words (prayerfully I hope).
Three of us converts go to Liturgy and Vespers in a Russian Orthodox monastery. Because of the large number of [ American] converts, the Archimandrite now says 80% of the Liturgy in English. We are most grateful. We do attend a Greek Orthodox monastery for Vespers, occasionally, where 100 % is in Greek, which I do not understand; it is still beautiful, but I could not attend Liturgy there every week without wondering what they are saying. BUT if it was the ONLY Orthodox church around, I still would have converted and tried to learn as much as I could. The Orthodox Church is the only True Church and has treasured and protected the apostolic succession. I couldn’t be satisfied with anything less after knowing that.
Lori Garrahan says
It’s funny. Of all the concerns that I have in regard to my first time attending an Orthodox church, the liturgy being given in a foreign tongue is definitely not one of them. We worship with all of our senses, and I have been to other countries where I did not speak the language, and worship was still moving. It seems that my ears were not the most important organ after all; my heart was.
Paula Sartor says
Although this debate on Orthodox services in the USA being conducted in other languages is logical ~ given the heading of this JTO article ~ one should, I believe, look at the context of this posting, which is personal transformation. Because I can relate to the idea of “unlearning God”, I fully understand that Mr. Olsen is practicing the mental exercise of “seeing [his] own error rather than judging [his brother]”, in this case, a local parish. Proactivity on the issue is another matter. THANK YOU, Mr. Olsen, for gifting us with the wonderful translations! I am going to copy and print them off immediately ! ….. and indeed, let us all SHOUT together, as one voice: CHRIST IS RISEN!
It is a wonderful article, and so well written, very vivid. However…
As the Equal-to-the-Apostles brought the light of Christianity to pagans, they didn’t insist the locals would learn Greek or Russian or Japanese. They, in fact, made a huge effort to translate the Scripture into the new language. In the 10th century, the Greek missionaries brought the light of Christianity to the Slavs. They learned the language, figured out the phonetics, came up with not just one but two alphabets, translated the Scripture, liturgy, and everything else – and by doing so created the Slavic languages as we know them; even more so, they created the Slavic culture and civilization. Had the Fathers insisted on the Slavs to do everything the way of the Greeks do, there would not have been onion domes, Andrey Rublev or Dionisius, or Rachmaninoff, Tchesnokov or Gretchaninoff. There would not have even been the Russian language but a dialect of Greek, in the same way as French, Spanish, Portuguese are dialects of Latin.
A good plant grows differently on different soils. It’s the weeds that always grow the same.
With all respect to the national identities of our immigrant communities – and I am saying it as an immigrant – we didn’t come to this country to remain Russians, Ukrainians, Greeks, Arabs. We came to America to become Americans; otherwise we would have just stayed in our old countries. We have learned the language (more or less…), and we have integrated (more or less…), but we have also brought “the good plant” – Orthodoxy. Yes, it has problems growing here; yes, it is choked by the weeds; yes, the native plants overwhelm it. But we know it is a good plant, rare and precious, and it has unique healing properties – in fact, it is the only known antidote to the poisons of this world.
I grew up in the Russia at the time when it wasn’t safe to go to church. I would sneak in (teenage rebellion!) and stay through the service conducted in Church Slavonic. The distance between Russian and Church Slavonic is same as between the modern English and that of Chaucer. For example, for decades I had no idea what they were singing after “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…” – I strained to make out the words but all I could hear was something about a ‘stomach.’ There were truths taught through the service, but I could not fathom them. The Word himself was proclaimed but I was deaf to it – not because I was unwilling to understand, but because it was spoken in a language I could not comprehend. All I could access was the external beauty of the liturgy, the astounding beauty of the icons, candle and incense filled space, the architecture – and that sense of holiness that communicated without words. But it is not enough, never enough! Piety without understanding is like trying to imitate an accent without speaking the actual language.
We often hear that the Church is a spiritual hospital. Imagine going to a doctor who does not speak your language or does but with an accent so thick that you can understand only 10% of his diagnosis and course of treatment. Is his diagnosis incorrect? Is his course of treatment wrong? Most likely not, but it is ultimately useless. You would not insist on the patients to learn the language of the doctor, would you?
It is imperative that the American Orthodox conduct the services in English (and modern English, not the fake Elizabethan). It is imperative that the American converts, American cradles, and newly-American reverts learn to communicate the teaching of the Church in the contemporary language without lapsing into “homoousia”, “poslushanije”, or “apophthegmata”.
Without that, the Orthodox Church will remain an artifact in a Museum of Ethnography, a display item in the Immigration Exposition, and a rare plant in the Botanical Garden, like an old bonsai tree we may admire but that has absolutely no influence on us otherwise. The weeds, meanwhile, profilerate.
I really have to say this author, while touching in his struggle, is about as naive and wrong headed as one can get. Let me first preface this with a statement: as far as I know my family has been Orthodox as long as we have memory – my father, grandparents, great grandparents, etc. etc. Our family has been co-workers with glorified saints. But I can tell you without hesitation that the language (and ethnicity issues) leads most ethnic Orthodox out of the church within a few generations. Most of my cousins are wound up Roman Catholic, Episcopal, or whatever – intermarriage, combined with parishes that insist on “protecting the ethnic heritage” will do that to you. That is why there are literally hundreds of thousands *less* OCA members than there were a few generations ago – and I am watching ROCOR repeat exactly the same mistake with new immigrant parishes today: its like history replaying itself.
Paul, I grew up here – fourth generation – am surrounded by Orthodox parishes and can’t find a single one within 45 minutes that is both healthy and likely to hold any attraction for my children. It is literally a travesty.
Randy Evans says
I love what Paul said several posts ago – so true, so appropriate if the holy Orthodox Faith is to have any impact at all on all the folks in our country who are genuinely seeking Mother Church and her mysteries of salvation without even knowing what they are looking for. Thank you Paul for your desire to embrace the culture you came to, while bringing the “good plant.” It is the kind of candid conversation we need to have much more of.
Fr. Christopher Allen says
I see I am a little late to this party, not having noticed the article earlier. The Gaelic (Irish? Scottish? Manx?) needs correction. What’s written here isn’t anything. In Irish, in any case, it’s “Ta Criost ar eirigh! Ta se ar eirigh go deimhin!” or “Ta se ar eirigh i bhfirinne!” (Pron: Tah Creest air ayree! Tah shay air ayree go dyivin/ee veerinye)