by Charlene Haapala
It is difficult to describe the changes that have occurred in my life in the past year. It literally feels as if it has been three years. That may be due to the fact that as a whole, I have slowed down. A few life changes have occurred in the last year including moving, finishing my Master’s degree, and starting my career as a social worker working as a therapist. However, even those most significant changes have not changed my life in the way that converting from Protestant Christianity to Eastern Orthodox Christianity has changed my framework for viewing life.
My experience of converting to Orthodoxy is what I will discuss in this post. There have been many theological changes in my faith, but as Orthodoxy is primarily experiential in nature, I will focus on the experiences that I have had coming into the church. This is a hard task to put into words because describing it only provides part of the truth of it. In the same way describing a painting or an orchestra piece does not do it justice or express the truth of it unless one experiences it by seeing or hearing it. In this post I will not attempt to discuss the theology of the early Christian Orthodox church, as much as I will try and express my experience of my initial and ongoing encounter with being Orthodox.
First, a little background on how my path took a turn into Orthodoxy. I grew up engaged in the Protestant denomination, primarily Pentecostal Christianity. My parents have a Lutheran and Roman Catholic background but both joined spirit filled Pentecostal churches, and raised us attending them. I went on to attend an Assemblies of God school for my undergraduate degree in psychology. My time at this school was a season of great shaping and molding in my life. I continued on to graduate school and finished my Masters in Social Work in the spring of 2012. I then returned to my hometown, and started a new job as a mental health therapist. It was during this time that my dad began to discuss with me in greater detail what he had been learning about church history before the protestant reformation. I have enough college credits to be equivalent to a bible minor and I don’t remember learning much about church history (besides the 100 years of Assemblies of God history). I had the impression from what I was told that the church in the book of Acts was lost, and we were left with the Bible, and sort of had to pick up the pieces on how to do church from there. In my ignorance, I really didn’t even know of church history before Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Anyways, my father began to talk about how the theology taken from the writings of the early church fathers was quite different than what we now have in many of our denominations.
Now, I have always been an avid learner and when I am presented with something that is intriguing I study it. I usually love to examine things for myself and make decisions based off of evidence (that has changed somewhat, in my increased acceptance of mystery). Anyways, we as a family decided to go visit an Orthodox church. My first visit was actually before I moved home, and I was home on Easter break. I really had no knowledge of the church when I had first visited because it was before I started studying it.
The first thing that I noticed when I first visited was that I felt very uncomfortable with the new environment. I was used to praising God with a song with a worship band, microphones, raising hands, and singing loudly. In this church I had no idea what I was to do, or when I was supposed to sit or stand. My family of course chose to sit in the front so we had to look behind us to determine if we needed to sit or stand (I later learned that in very traditional orthodox churches there are no pews so people stand the entire time, and it is never inappropriate to stand all of the time). Underneath my feeling of being uncomfortable, was a feeling that this kind of worship was not about me and my comfort at all. After the service my brother mentioned that the liturgical worship was orderly and respectful and expressed reverence towards God, and I agreed with him. My impression after the first service was that I didn’t really understand what everything meant but I knew it was greater than anything I could make up on my own.
When I began to attend weekly services, I began to understand the order of worship. I also noticed how much prayer and scripture was used throughout the service. I saw members going up to receive communion from one cup every week. I eventually began attending Catechumen classes and began to learn about this ancient church that claimed to be continuing in the doctrine of faith from the apostles. The Orthodox way was sparking much curiosity in me. I initially had a ton of skepticism, because of course many of the beliefs challenged the way I had grown up thinking and believing. However, in catechumen class, my heart began to open to the church and it’s glorious ways. I learned about early Christian church history and it’s traditions. I also learned how the Orthodox church was the only Christian church for the first many hundred years of Christianity, and they have kept the same doctrine and teaching of the apostles, and have an unbroken line of bishops from the time of the apostles.
There have been many things that I have learned, but as I said before, I want to primarily speak of my experience with the church. In August 2012 I visited three Orthodox monasteries and stayed three nights. When I walked into the first monastery, I entered right into the gift shop surrounded floor to ceiling with icons. As I walked by them, I felt an unbelievable peace and calmness come over me which brought tears to my eyes. I then was able to experience Liturgy with the nuns of the monastery, and it was one of the most beautiful things I have ever experienced. It was as if the nuns had the voices of angels. They sang so humbly, “Kyrie Eleison.” I was able to experience the venerating of the bones of early church saints and apostles, lighting of candles, and kissing the hand of the Gerontissa of the monastery. We later visited a smaller monastery and listened first hand to a monk tell his story of grace. On another day we visited the most beautiful church I have ever seen that was located at another monastery and had a service with the Serbian Orthodox Patriarch (in a later service I was able to meet him, what an honor). After this trip I began to read Orthodox books. I had decided by then that I wanted to join the Orthodox church as I felt it was the most consistent in teaching since the early church times, and for many other reasons.
On November 18, 2012, me and my entire immediate family became Orthodox Christians through Chrismation. I took part in a Chrismation service where I was given the seal of the Holy Spirit. I basically cried through the whole thing. I finally felt like I had come home. I joined the church even though mentally, I had not been able to understand all of it’s teachings or reasoning for why they do what they do. I began to see God differently. It wasn’t necessarily in opposition to my former way of seeing God as a protestant, but it was almost like, for my whole life I had only one lens to view God and the world, and now I have the other lens along with the frame to be able to put the glasses on and use them in my day to day life.
I continued my study of the faith after being a partaker in it. I learned about this rich history of the numerous lives of the saints. I learned many of the purposes and practices of the church. At first I thought the practices were legalistic, but this actually can’t be father from the truth. In reality the practices of the church are all there for my healing and transformation into a selfless person. It is a prescription to work towards wholeness in cooperation with God’s grace and sacrifice. To me, Orthodoxy has not only provided the other lens and frame to see, it has provided the path to walk on to live out this Christian life and bring me ever closer into oneness with the Lord. I now see more clearly that God has invited us into the life of the Trinity (John 17:21) and we do this by partaking in the life of Christ and his church. Partaking of Christ’s body and blood regularly, which is unifying myself with Him and the Church to be one body in Christ. Confession has helped to reveal my passions and sin, and it has helped me be mindful of it throughout each day. Confession holds me accountable to all my secrets, causes me to regularly open myself up and let the Lord purify me, living a life of repentance. It has also began a process of healing from sin that I had previously never experienced in my life even after I initially came to Christ when I was younger. Through prayer and fasting I have been able to understand denying the self will in a practical way.
One of the most beautiful things that is part of the Orthodox mindset is that we don’t have to know it all or explain everything, because we cannot know everything about God (we will always be discovering more), but we can know Him and be in a relationship with Him. What we see is just a glimpse. God is ultimately a mystery which parts have been revealed. It does not attempt to explain away the mysteries, but accepts Christ’s words as they are. The Orthodox church puts an emphasis on the, mind, body, soul (as the transformation is of the “whole” person). I have also noticed that you don’t need to be happy all the time but rather can be sober minded. It accepts the paradoxes of life. Things can be both/and, instead of either/or. It actually intentionally tries not to put God in a box.
Lastly, one of the most remarkable things I have noticed about myself being part of the Orthodox church is that I seem to have been internally, “Quieted,” “Stilled,” and “Calmed.” I can only describe it as an internal peace and calm that I have never felt before. The entire experience has been very humbling, and I want to continue to walk on this road of humbleness and self sacrifice. I want my entire being to be made whole, not just my intellect. One thing that I have said to many that I have already spoken with, is that Orthodoxy is everything I thought Christianity should be… and always was.
Thank you for taking the time to read this, I wanted to share what has been going on with me in the past year, especially those who I have not been able to share with yet.