by Jonathan Hill
I often read about convert stories to Orthodoxy typically finding a similarity in most of the stories. This similarity in others stories is totally antithetical to my own conversion story. Many find certain teachings difficult or disturbing to come to terms with during their inquiring phase. Only after I had technically converted, did I undergo such a process.
I grew up Lutheran to two ELCA parents in Connecticut. Both of my parents were musicians, more specifically church musicians. Music education was of huge importance growing up. I started violin at age 5, and singing at age 7. When I started singing it was decided that I would join a town over Episcopal cathedral steeped in the Men and Boy choir tradition. I sang there for ten years, from 7 to 17, in my final year going on tour of England seeing all the great wonderful cathedrals there.
Both of my parents where church musicians at their own respective church, and I sang at a third parish. Growing up I was never at church with my family. Choir practice was always right before the service too, exactly at the same time when normal church schooling occurred for youths. My parents tried to teach me as much as they could, but church education was never a high priority. If I had to wager I would contend that church education was more important to my mother, a fact which will become of importance later. I was ultimately communed in the ELCA, having taken a two year course at our local ELCA parish. Don’t ask me if I remember anything from this course, however!
Even though I did not make it to many official church schooling lessons or classes, as a musician we are told to *listen*. I couldn’t tell you what chapter or verse a story in the bible was from, but I could tell you any story almost from memory from just listening during the service.
At this point I want to mentioned two sort of non sequitur stories from my childhood regarding church and Christianity. At one point I remember questioning why as Episcopalian Protestants we were singing the Magnificat, and thinking anyone who prayed to Mary was “dumb.” I also remember questions posed to me by a Jewish friend down the street: what is salvation? he asked. I said,
“It’s becoming God!”
Oh kids say the darnedest things sometimes.
After I left my Episcopal church in CT, I moved to Boston for schooling. My father, an organ tuner, re-builder, and servicer, knew many many church musicians in Boston. As a family we would often travel there as my dad would go for extended periods of time. I grew up listening to great choirs and meeting many many organists, priests, pastors, you name it. So when I moved, the logical choice for me was to join the parish of Trinity Copley, in Copley Sq Boston. My dad knew the choir director there, and I got to sing for him as well. At this time I changed my focus from violin performance to vocal performance. I was around 20.
I sang at Trinity Copley for two years, leaving on a sour note.
2004, my mom passed. I mention this because, and not in any negative way, it was a real freeing experience regarding Christianity. For example. growing up I heard that, for my grandmother, it would have been better my mother marry a Muslim than a Catholic.
At this time I was rather interested in singing for a close by Anglo-Catholic parish, Church of the Advent, purely for musical and career reasons. They perform an entire mass each Sunday, never repeating music within a given season. I recall telling a friend, “I think God wants me to sing the mass!” I ultimately never sang there, but a bug had bit me, the bug of high liturgics.
It was at this time that I went both back to my roots and onward, joining the Men and Boys choir of All Saints, Ashmont. While being a men and boys choir, something familiar to my youth, it was also Anglo-Catholic high liturgics. I recall not wanting to kiss the cross on Good Friday, and after every service they would recite the hail Mary, and I’d purposely turn my back (which caught the eye of a number of disgruntled parishioners). So clearly I had *some* Protestant hang ups. It was during this time that I remember having a wikipedia night, one where you look something up, click a link in that page to go to another page, clink a link in that new page to a newer page, and so forth til, hours later, you no longer know how to got to where you are. Surprise Surprise! I landed on a wiki page about Orthodoxy.
I was at All Saints for only 1 year, again leaving on a sour note. It became apparent to me that working for the church, being a paid employee, seemed to garner a different behavior than what I would consider “Christian.” I got a job as a bar tender and started working Sunday mornings. I swore off church. I wouldn’t even step foot in one.
This is when what I would consider my real journey began. I had friends at Brandeis University in Waltham, MA. Brandeis, at least at the time, was the 2nd largest Jewish university in the US, only to Yeshiva in NYC. I started going to Shabbas services, talking with reformed, conservative, and orthodox Jews; I even dated a Jewish girl and went to Israel while she was abroad there. I recall in a conversation with an orthodox Jewish man saying,
“Only Christ kept the true Sabbath, as He died and laid in the tomb.”
Curious again as that’s exactly what our Good Friday hymnography says!
I was reading about Islam; about prostration; about prayer; about the desert.
Then one day two singer friends of mine, a married couple, asked me about what church I attended. I hadn’t been to one in almost 2 years. The husband invites me to come to church with him. I think, oh great some mega/house hippy church. But no, they brought me to St Mary’s Antiochain Orthodox Church, Cambridge, MA. It was so different: the sights, the sounds, the smells. I remember thinking Byzantine chant was so “other worldly.”
But I was still not convinced. Venerating the cross at the end of liturgy my first service, I remember saying to myself,
“I will NEVER do that again!”
I thought, however, why not visit another Orthodox parish and see what this Orthodox thing was about. So I went Holy Trinity OCA Cathedral next to Fenway park. You can tell I was a convert/inquirer because I arrived early for service! Peering in through the door I could see…. NO PEWS! Don’t ask me why this mattered to me, all I knew was this was what I was looking for! Within 2 weeks of first attending St Mary’s I was venerating every icon. I just knew it was right.
That was July of 2008. I knew then I wanted to become Orthodox. But I must be honest, it was more out of a want to belong and be with my friends. I was told to take the 9am-10am catechism class before liturgy for a whole year, ending just after Pascha (being Chrismated on Pascha) of the following year. I could not wait. I also couldn’t seem to care. Because I knew I was going to do it (and also because I worked a night time bar tending job), I believe I only attended 50% of the actual classes, and of those I was most likely hung over more often than not.
But I knew I wanted it. Every Sunday I made it a point to stop by Holy Resurrection Bulgarian Orthodox in Alston, as it was right around the corner from where I lived. They had a nice gift shop and I’d buy a small icon every week to not only start my own collection, but to make icons and veneration a normal part of my life. There were sounds and smells in the Church that were new to me, too. Incense had been a thing I was used to, having attended Anglo-Catholic parishes.
But even then it was ‘other worldly.’ And what exactly was Byzantine chant? Growing up I had gotten used to four part Western harmonies and music. Perhaps if I had found a Russian Church first this wouldn’t have been such an adjustment. However, I am grateful for such an adjustment. Byzantine chant made the service so different, like I was entering another world. Isn’t that exactly what we think of the service too, that we’re entering heaven? This is also why I prefer the old calendar, it separates the Church from the secular world.
Whom would my patron be? I remember stressing over this question. Many choose a Saint whose day aligns with their birthday. Others read volumes of Saints lives finding which strike them. The first icon of a Saint I bought was St Nicholas of Myra. I thought this was important since I had hang ups of icon veneration. Previously I had only bought icons of Christ, or icons of stories from the Gospel. St Nicholas was the first Saint. But I also felt a strong connection to the Old Testament, and felt a Saint, such as an Apostle, someone who bridged the gap between the old covenant and the new, would be appropriate. So it came down to St Nicholas of Myra and St Stephen the Protomartyr. One night while praying before bed, starring up at the ceiling, questioning whom my patron should be, a few chips from the ceiling fell onto my head, and I knew, I KNEW! My patron Saint was St Stephen the Protomartyr.
Other curious stories, such as this, occurred during my year as catechumen. While looking for an icon on a given Sunday that year I was struck by a tiny pocket icon of The Theotokos Three Hands, by St John of Damascus. I had yet not gotten an icon of the Theotokos. I thought nothing of it and moved on. But curiously I kept finding myself looking at that tiny little pocket icon on the shelf. Finally I went to pick it up and look at it more closely. Immediately I “heard” (does anyone really know if they hear or not in these cases?) “You have no mother; today I am your Mother.” And I went and bought that icon.
I get that many ask questions about the structure of the services, vestments, hierarchy, bishops, liturgical calendar, and the like. For whatever reason I did not ask these questions. I was much more drawn to the two types of examples above, to experience. Only years later did my now spiritual Father, Fr Archimandrite Maximos, tell me that I am much more like Mary than like Martha.
I was ultimately chrismated Pascha of 2009. I recall that first holy week, all the services at night by candle light. It brought with it a feel of being in a cave like how I thought those first Christians gathered.
After I converted I learned about the Fathers. Just who were they? Why are we they important? Was it appropriate to read them? Who was St Maximos the Confessor? What is the Philokalia? What is the phronema of the Fathers and what is prayer of the heart?
All these questions! But you see, I had already converted and only now started to ask. What had I gotten myself into?
Looking back I think this was perfectly fine. Those questions are quite complex with no easy, next day answers. I know many struggle, wrestling with these very questions during their inquiring phase. I am grateful for the blessing God gave me to not struggle with these questions and just jump in, even if it did cause me sleepless nights down the road! Even now, 8 or so years later, I am still learning the meaning of forgiveness. As newly ordained deacon, Fr Steven (ROCOR) told me,
“Forgiveness requires a deep sense of self.”
And I think this is exactly what the phronema of the Fathers is.
My 5 years at St Mary’s was rather tenuous, and I almost left Orthodoxy. I wanted more Fathers, less modern writers. I even attended, for financial reasons, a Episcopal church 2013-2014, singing as a paid section leader, with a blessing of course. However, Glory to God, I was picked up by now my spiritual Father, Archimandrite Maximos Weimar, I attend a ROCOR parish in Boise, Fr David Moser presiding, and I often make trips to Seattle where I am welcomed as a family member at the Kotar’s at St Nicholas’ ROCOR Cathedral. During Holy Week this year after hearing me sing in the choir, Bishop Theodosy of Seattle said,
“Your voice is needed by the Church.”
God willing I will continue to chant and read the services to the Glory of God.
Christ is Risen!