We continue with the interview between Fr. George Maximov and Vietnamese Orthodox Anna Dao Bin.
Father George: How did you start to figure things out?
Anna: I talked to friends who were also interested in these matters. We watched lectures and read books. Found some Orthodox literature. At first, I was very cautious, because my understanding of Orthodoxy was wrong. I thought that the Orthodox added something. Baptists say that the Orthodox added something to the Holy Scripture and that is why they misunderstand and do everything wrong. However, when I read the Orthodox books and watched lectures, I saw that everything was according to the Bible and that there were no contradictions. I even thought that, perhaps, the Biblical teachings are better followed in Orthodoxy. It was very important for me because Protestants believe that the Bible is the foundation of everything. So it was very important for me to understand that if Orthodoxy didn’t contradict the Bible, then maybe the truth was there and it was worth investigating.
Father George: When you started going to Orthodox churches you probably noticed that they look very different.
Anna: Yes, they did. At first, everything was very complicated and unclear – I didn’t understand what was happening in the church. The impression I got wasn’t very good because I got used to what happened in Protestant churches – when you go there, even for the first time, somebody usually approaches you, everybody greet you..
Father George: …smile and say hello…
Anna: …yes, they welcome you. When I came to the Orthodox church, nobody talked to me or said anything. Nobody even paid any attention to me. I really appreciate communication so I didn’t understand that attitude. Of course, I don’t know Russian so well, let alone Church Slavonic. And the service itself was not clear to me. I remember that when I came to the Church of Christ the Savior for the first time with my friend, we watched the communion and didn’t understand what was happening.
Father George: How did you make the decision to convert to Orthodoxy?
Anna: All summer I’d been reading various Orthodox books and articles and discussing them with my friends from Baptist churches. They, of course, weren’t very happy about that. I think it wasn’t so difficult for me to accept the Orthodox teachings because I didn’t come from a Protestant family, but made my own choice. So it was up to me to decide whether or not I should stay in the Protestant community. In Ryazan, even when I became very interested in Orthodoxy, I kept on going to the Baptist church because all the people I knew and socialized with were there. I am thankful to God for making it possible for me to stay and study in Russia.
When I came to Moscow, I decided that I will no longer go to Baptist churches, but will learn more about the Orthodox teaching instead. It was easier for me in Moscow, because I didn’t know anybody there and could start from scratch. I attended a Bible Study club in an Orthodox church where their deacon explained everything to us. For me it was a new approach – learning that you must understand the Holly Scripture correctly. Protestants use a different approach: You understand the Bible any way you want it. Bible Studies were held as follows: a group of people would gather and they would be asked, “What emotions or thoughts do you have when you read this?” Naturally, it is an easy way to fall into error.
Father George: Of course. I remember that St. Nicholas of Japan wrote, “Japanese Protestants came to me and asked, ‘What does this verse mean in the Holy Scripture?’ I told them, ‘You have your own teachers. Why don’t you ask them?’ They said, ‘We did ask them and they told us to understand it the way we like it, but we want to know what God had in mind when He said that’.’’ Thanks to the Holy Tradition, we in Orthodox Church can know what God Himself meant by any word. That is why the Orthodox Church remains true to itself for two millennia after its creation.
Anna: Yes. Then I thought about the origins of the Bible for the first time. It didn’t simply appear, somebody compiled it. Someone had to choose which books to include and which to exclude. I learned that it was done by the early Church and that the early Christians didn’t even have the Bible. So if we trust the Church that established the composition of the Bible and believe that it correctly chose the books to include, why can’t we trust its guidelines about the way we need to understand the Bible?
Father George: Indeed, this is the question that Protestants usually disregard. When you tell them that since ancient times the Church had a teaching about the importance of the Holy Tradition, veneration of saints and icons, that is all the things that they reject, they say that it was because the Church has already fallen into error. But it was that very Church at that specific time that compiled the biblical canon that Protestants accept! The bishops of this Church at the Councils held in the fourth and fifth centuries determined which books were included in the Bible. So if Protestants (based on their understanding of the Bible) say that the Church was in error at that time, this means that they should reject the Bible too.
And the second aspect that you mentioned that is also ignored by Protestants is that the Apostolic Church lived without the New Testament. It lived through Tradition only that was passed by word of mouth. The books of the New Testament appeared throughout the first century, but they were not available to everybody. That is, the true Church appeared before the Bible. So when Protestants try to create their communities on the basis of the Bible, they go in a completely opposite direction.
Anna: Yes, after I got a better understanding of the differences between various denominations and learned how these denominations were created, I couldn’t simply brush it aside and continue my journey in Protestantism. I had to reconsider many things that I previously believed in. People I met helped me with this. These people were wonderful! I got acquainted with a deacon who was interested in Vietnam. He prepared me for the Baptism, explained the Orthodox teachings to me in detail, corrected the things that I got wrong and eventually became my godfather. I am very thankful to him. These teachers were God-sent to me.
Father George: Now that you started your life in Orthodoxy, do you still feel lonely when you go to church?
Anna: No, I don’t feel lonely. I was surprised that many Orthodox people know the Scripture very well. For example, the deacon who is my godfather… I had a very good impression of him after our first talk specifically because he knew the Scripture very well and used quotes from it to answer my questions. Since I always appreciated the Bible and believed that it was the foundation of faith, it was very important for me. When I talk to my Protestant friends, I understand how important it is to base your arguments on the Bible.
Father George: What are your impressions of living in the Orthodoxy? Do you feel anything new, something that wasn’t there before?
Anna: Yes, of course! When I started going to the Orthodox church, the path I should take became clearer for me. I wasn’t alone with the Bible that I somehow had to understand on my own. Protestants want to live according to the Bible, but it is not possible without teachers or without the Church.
Father George: Did such things as, for example, icons make you uncomfortable?
Anna: Of course, at first it was very uncomfortable. It was difficult for me to accept such things as icons, confession, communion, fasting, monasticism, etc. All these were new to me. But I remembered that at the time of early Church there were many people who couldn’t read, so I think that icons helped them learn about God. Now I no longer feel uncomfortable.
Father George: Indeed, looking at the icons and paintings in the church, we can see, for example, all main events in the life of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I used to bring a Muslim to a church, and just by looking at the icons we could briefly review the main events of the Gospel, Old Testament, and even our future that is described in the Apocalypse: usually the image of the Judgement Day is placed in the western part of the church. Of course, the icons help to tell the story, but besides they also help us in prayer. If I’m travelling and have no icon and have to pray just looking at a blank wall, my prayer seems somewhat flawed. When we see an image – and as we know veneration of the image means veneration of the original – this helps us in prayer. Did you feel that?
Anna: Yes, of course. In Protestant churches, it is a common practice to pray with your eyes closed. And often it seemed that I was simply falling asleep during prayer. You are right, the icons help you to stay focused.
Father George: How do you see your future? Are you planning to return to Vietnam or to stay in Russia? Or maybe go somewhere else?
Anna: I don’t have finalized plans yet, since I came to Russia not so long ago, so for now I’m planning to study here. I’m studying at the faculty of international relations. I believe that it was God who gave me this opportunity and I’m very happy about it. The educational establishment that I’m studying in prepares diplomats, but I did not have any desire to become one. Gradually, after talking with my godfather who knows a lot about missionary work and wants to be engaged in missionary work among Vietnamese, I realized how providentially God arranged all this. My university teaches us languages and people skills. The same qualities are needed in missionary work. That is why I’m very happy that I’m studying these subjects.
Father George: Yes, of course, because God gives us the Truth not only for our own sake but also so that we could share it with others.
Anna: God is immeasurably generous and He gave me so much! I’m very happy that I’m here in Russia and that I found Orthodoxy. I know that if God gives many things to us, He expects that we would share them with others.
Father George: Thank you very much for your story. God help you in your chosen path. I hope to God that other people of Vietnam would find their path to Orthodoxy.