by Alison Cloonan
I was not baptized in the Orthodox Church when I converted from Protestantism.
This has become a subject of intense controversy, but fortunately for me it was not when I received the Chrism of the Holy Spirit into the Orthodox faith twenty years ago. And even today I would not change my mind, because my baptism is a part of my spiritual story.
Born in the late 1950s, I grew up and came of age in the late 1960s and early ‘70s and was raised in a non-denominational Protestant church. I was not Methodist, Calvinist, Lutheran, Episcopalian, Brethren, Presbyterian, Catholic, or even Baptist. We had no set dogma. We had no creed. The closest statement of belief was at the beginning of every service when we sang the Doxology written by Anglican Bishop Thomas Ken (1637–1711).
Praise God from whom all blessings flow; Praise him, all creatures here below; Praise him above, ye heavenly host: Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
In its original incarnation this was the closing stanza to the morning, evening, and midnight hymns “Awake, My Soul, and with the Sun,” “All Praise to Thee, My God, This Night,” and “My God, I Now from Sleep Awake”, which he published in 1674 in A Manual of Prayers for the Use of the Scholars of Winchester College to encourage his students in regular prayer. But I did not know all of that then, and liturgical prayers would have been foreign to us.
My early instruction taught knowledge of the Trinity, the risen Christ and His resurrection, and man’s need for redemption; and He was my shepherd Who always took care of His sheep, and I was one of them.
The Bible may be only one leg of Orthodox Faith, but it was thoroughly taught and I learned as much as my young mind was capable. The interpretation may not have been Orthodox, but when I went through my Catechumen instruction I was able to relate the theology to the scripture. I have always been grateful for that.
It is said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. I think a man must have originally made that statement for any woman knows about all the planning and packing that must be done before the key is put in the ignition, or one removes their shoes to go through airport security, or puts on the hiking shoes. Before the packing is the planning, and prior to the planning is the idea of taking a trip, and even before that there must be a desire to take a trip, which ultimately gives birth to all the rest.
However else God prepared my way, this is how I remember beginning my walk with God, the Creator, the Savior, the Life-giver.
When I was five, in first grade, an older woman in my neighborhood held a Good News Club group once a week after school in her home. Child Evangelism is still a vibrantly active program teaching young children about Jesus Christ and His love for His sheep to children who would never otherwise hear about Him. Aside from the cookie we received as we left, the highlight of the hour was the flannel graph story. It was exciting to see David and Goliath advance across the flannel with the background picture colored with chalk. The paper rocks were flung across the board, striking Goliath smack in between his eyes and striking him dead! Every week I learned a new story showing me how much God loved me and wanted to be my Savior and have me as His sheep and to take care of me.
Even as a five year old I understood that I did things wrong, was a sinner, and that Jesus could wash away my sins and make me new. The theology may have been wanting , the perspective of sin a little off center, but I knew to the core of my being that Jesus wanted to be my savior, so with this wonderful Christian lady, I asked Jesus to forgive my sins and to come into my heart. That day I became a follower of Christ, a Christian, and was filled with unspeakable joy.
I RAN home. I couldn’t have gotten home any faster if my feet had wings. I knew I had to share with my mother what the Lord had done for me. That was the first time I shared Christ’s love to another person.
From this moment it was my desire to get to know this God who loved me so much that He sent His Son to die on the cross to save me from my sins. It excites me just as much now as it did when I was that young girl to know that GOD LOVES ME! It became my heart’s desire to learn more about this God and His love for me.
I was blessed to grow up in a church attending family. I grew up saying grace before every meal and going to church every Sunday, and even Sunday and Wednesday evenings. My mother had been raised a Methodist, but for her family church for was a social activity. Providentially, the same time I was attending the Good News Club, she was on her own journey, had left the Methodist church and was taking us to the non-denomination one in our small community. As that little girl, I learned the Bible stories in Sunday school and memorized verses to “hide Thy word in my heart that I might not sin against Thee”.
One of the teachings I learned was that Christ told us to be baptized so when I was I eight, in obedience to Christ’s saying, “Be ye baptized,” I went to the front of the congregation when the altar call was made and told the preacher I was ready to be baptized. For everyone else it may just be a witness of having accepted Christ as their Savior, but for me it was a visceral part of dying to my own selfishness and being was raised up with the resurrected Christ.
I was eight, so was I able to have a theological discussion concerning the true meaning of “baptism”? Of course not; but neither can an infant. Is there a difference between an infant and an eight year old who is striving to be as obedient to Christ as she possibly can within the culture and knowledge she has? Is it the baptism that is for the remittance of sin or is it the priest who makes it so?
“John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus. On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.” (Acts 19:4-5)
So I followed; one step at a time.
I don’t remember my first communion, but it was to follow the making a decision of faith and not dependent on being baptized. Just as baptism was an act to demonstrate an inward change, communion was an act for remembering Christ’s death; do this in remembrance of me. The bread or crackers and the grape juice were representations of the broken body and the shed blood of Jesus’ death through which sins are forgiven, and I took it whenever it was offered. Growing up it was monthly and as I got older churches began to do it quarterly, and many places now only offer it in the Sunday evening service.
Going through school I wasn’t content with merely attending Sunday morning church service with my parents. I attended all the Bible studies I could find and began to read the popular religious books of that time. I came of age in the early 1970’s and immersed myself in the eschatological theology of the Jesus People Movement. My copy of Hal Lindsey’s Late Great Planet Earth was well read and discussed with my friends at length. “The end is near” was a reality for us and we debated whether the rapture of Christians would occur before the Tribulation began or at the 3 ½ year midpoint or after it. The Jehovah Witnesses even went so far as to declare that Christ was going to return in 1975. I wondered if that happened, would it be before my graduation from high school in June, or after it!
In 1972, as a freshman in high school, I rode a bus to LA with a couple of girlfriends and attended a Jesus People Rally in Los Angeles for several days between Christmas and New Year’s Day. It culminated with us taking to the streets on Colorado Boulevard New Year’s Eve to street witness to the thousands of people lining up for the Rose Bowl Parade. The highlight of the trip was the opportunity to hear Corey Tenboom speak. Her love for God radiated from her and I knew I was in the presence of a living saint. She told about her life saving Nazi persecuted Jews and her imprisonment under the Germans during WWII, but it was a piece of advice her father told her as a young woman that has stayed with me. Becoming impatient with the lack of an answer to prayer, her father asked her the question, “Corey, when do I give you the ticket to get on the train?” She answered, “Just before I get on.” “That,” her father explained, “is exactly when God will answer your prayer; just when you need it.”
I was in search of a deep, passionate relationship with my God and I wanted it NOW! I explored end-time theology the theology of Predestination, free-will, and who is God’s Elect. I also began to explore the Charismatic Movement that was taking the west coast by “fire”. We were told that we were living through the next “Great Revival”. Meetings were being held in churches and school cafetoriums and people were being “baptized in the Holy Spirit” through the laying on of hands. (Acts 19:5 – 6:5)
They were speaking in tongues, being slain in the Spirit, and prophesying. I was sure this would give me the power to live the Christian life victoriously and to deepen my relationship with God. I was “baptized in the Holy Spirit” and had my prayer language that was to help me know how to pray and through “groanings that could not be understood” my spirit would be able to commune with my God.
If these things were to fulfill my need, give me a strong Christian life, and bring me closer to my God, then why did I still feel empty, weak, and restless? I knew that Christ was my hope and my salvation, but I just couldn’t seem to connect it all together.
My sophomore year in high school I hit on the idea of attending a Christian boarding school. I hoped that I would find other kids who were seeking as much as I was, and that the teachers would be able to shepherd us in the life with Christ. I researched the catalogs and found a school outside the San Francisco Bay area, only about a 4-hour drive from my home. I found that the kids at the boarding school were the same type of kids at my high school. Although we had chapel every morning before school and attended church every Sunday, the kids weren’t any more “spiritual” than at home. I began to feel disillusioned with my relationship with God.
The saying, “hope deferred is hope denied” very much articulated how I felt. I had a hunger and a need that I could not fill. I didn’t even know what it was I wanted other than to have a deeper, closer relationship with God, and no one knew how to help me. I began to feel strong anger towards God for withholding from me whatever it was that my spirit needed. The problem was I didn’t even know what it was that I sought or what was being withheld. So after attending the boarding school only one year I retuned back home to finish my last year of high school.
I finally reached a point I could no longer tolerate the unsatisfied Christian life and began going after worldly pursuits. After all, if God would deny me spiritual fulfillment, how could I trust Him to satisfy the desires for my life?
It was 1974 and everyone was in crisis. The Viet Nam war had ending and Saigon soon would fall. President Nixon had resigned under threat of impeachment from the Watergate scandal. It was a time of sex, drugs, and rock and roll, and I found all three in a person I married my senior year of high school. It no longer mattered to me if Christ came before or after my graduation.
I still attended church sporadically, not only to fulfill my spiritual needs, but now also my marital ones. Ultimately my husband had issues beyond my ability to resolve or to live with, and we divorced after 5 years. I was 23 and had a 4-year-old daughter. Now I was not only missing spiritual fulfillment, I was also missing being a wife and mother in a marriage I had also desired so deeply.
Now I was twice denied. Denied spiritual fulfillment and now denied my other desire of husband and home. I felt betrayed by my God to whom I only wanted to love and obey and yet felt such tremendous insufficiency and inability to do so. I knew I was not saved by my works and yet I knew that I had a part in my salvation and I was failing miserably. I had also been told that if I were baptized in the Holy Spirit I would have the power to walk the Christian walk. I was a hopeless failure.
I lived a life of dissipation and indulgence that has been confessed to my spiritual father and needs no further development here. My son was born when I was 24 and I married his father a year later. Two wrongs don’t make a right, no matter how much I wanted it to. Three months after our marriage, several abusive incidents and being told I had been “bought and paid for” I left my husband and took my two children home to my parents. When the marriage ended, the custody battle began.
Struggling to get back onto the “narrow path”, I enrolled my daughter into a small private school at a charismatic church that we also began to attend on Sundays. Although I still didn’t find spiritual fulfillment, the pastor gave me wonderful worlds of wisdom for living in my parent’s home. (Pastor Woody, thank you so much for your words, which have actually helped me beyond the time of living with my parents!) First he told me that the Chinese symbol for war is two women under one roof. Then he told me that I was living in my mother’s home and that I needed to submit to her. And finally he told me to be grateful. While at times I had difficulty submitting, I am always grateful for all that my parents have done throughout all the years, in helping me raise my children, financially assisting me, and in encouraging and supporting me emotionally.
What occurred next in my life is paramount to my journey to Orthodoxy. I tell you these things because without them I could not have gone from “here” to “there”. You cannot know my story without understanding the preliminary experience.
My son’s father began his promised custody battle.
It was the early 1980’s and the McMartin Preschool trial in Los Angeles was on the front page of the newspapers. The owners, accused of child sexual abuse, devil worship and animal sacrifices, were stating their innocence, while child therapists were telling of “repressed memories” the children had of these supposed horrific events. A wave of “remembered” memories of sexual abuse was being brought out by therapists and psychologists were jumping on the bandwagon of social hysteria and families were being destroyed.
Corporal punishment was against the law and children in kindergarten were being taught the telephone number to the child protective agencies before they even learned their home numbers. They were instructed to call if they ever felt they were unsafe at home. Parental authority was being undermined and social workers, with the support of the courts and legislature, were creating divisiveness between parents and children and divorced spouses in order to socially engineer a stronger state authority of the custody of the children of divorced families.
While wending my way through the custody battle for my son, I attended the local community college and completed my 2 year AS degree as a Psychiatric Technician. I began working full time and transferred to the local state college to complete my degree in Political Science.
In the 1980s, California had a mediation system via the courts to resolve child custody disputes. It was at this time that I learned that in a divorce the custody of the child ultimately belongs to the State; the judge is free to make a ruling no matter what the parents decide for their child, even overriding their wishes.
In addition to having no rights as an abused wife, because abusing your wife was still legal in California at the time, I found that the courts were of the opinion that just because a husband abuses his wife does not mean he is a danger to his children, and that the husbands have a right to their children until the children are abused, and only then will the courts make a determination as to the consequence to the abuser. In other words, I could not protect my son from an abusive man.
Vowing to have custody of our son by the time he was five, my ex-husband began an aggressive offense, using the courts, intimidation, and verbal abuse.
Ultimately, those who live by the sword, die by the sword and inevitably my son came home with bruising down his legs and up his back. Naively, I believed this would be the end of the battle and I would be granted custody. However, I discovered that in addition to having to fight my ex-husband, I found I now had to fight the Department of Social Services and their court-appointed psychiatrist, who stated he wanted to put my son back into his father’s home so that he could “experiment” with therapy for my ex-husband. Discouragingly, my ex-husband not only lived out of county, but also lived on federal land, meaning that any California court order had no jurisdictional enforcement authority, and that this psychiatrist would have no control over getting my son out of a dangerous situation. And neither could the local police.
But the States representatives and social workers supported the psychiatrist in his “experiment” and the judge ruled in their favor.
Finally, in 1991, after 1 ½ years of court hearings and thousands of dollars in legal expenses, something Providential happened and God’s plan was revealed. That day a substituting non-juvenile court judge was presiding over the hearing. My ex-husband’s attorney had high-lighted every negative comment written about me by the myriad of psychologists, mediators, and social workers who had ever had contact with me and was flipping through the pages, reading them out one by one. I was sitting before a presiding judge who held my future in his hands, being accused of every shortcoming and failure in my life. Tears were actually plopping down onto the paper on the table in front of me when suddenly the judge brought the gavel down with a loud crack, and loudly and resoundingly said,
“I’ve heard enough. Custody to the mother.”
Silence; and then there was a collective gasp as the minds of lawyers for the state, my son, my ex-husband, and me; the two social workers; the psychiatrist; and the supporting family members, finally comprehended his declaration.
Now that I had custody of my son, I knew I could not safely stay in California. My ex-husband would not give up his fight and would continue the legal battle. Seeing no other alternative I petitioned the court for permission to move out of state. (I could not move without the State’s permission.) I was granted the right to move only where there were family members. My choices were limited to Havre, MT with my uncle or to Maryland with my brother, who, in the Army, was stationed there with his family. I requested to move to the Maryland area. I was told that I could live in Maryland or Pennsylvania or Virginia, but I could not relocate to West Virginia because the schools were not good enough.
In preparation for this epic trek across country with a ten year old boy and a fourteen year old daughter, very much in teenager mode, God had brought me to this part of the country three years earlier.
I had traveled with my cousin to West Virginia on a genealogical research trip into our grandfather’s family history. We took the trip at the end of October, flying into Pittsburgh then driving into WV to the family homestead and cemetery, then to the library archives in Richmond, VA, taking the scenic route through the Blue Ridge Mountains, up to Harpers Ferry, over to Antietam and finally back to Pittsburgh. Although we had missed the peak of the autumn leaves, the colors were beautiful that year and somewhere along the way I said the fateful words,
“Someday I’m going to live back here.”
Within two months after the judicial decree I moved to Maryland, where I had been able to transfer in my job and my daughter was able to attend a high school performing arts program. Who would have known I would be moving to the place of my ancestors so soon after my trip with my cousin! In fact, on my father’s mother’s side of the family, I now live within a couple of miles where they lived almost 200 years ago, and the research had not yet been done when I moved to the area. And in another amazing plan of God, now my younger brother lives here with his family, the brother in the military retired close by, and after the death of my father, my mother moved in with my younger brother and his family. Just another thing God has done that makes me go, “Huh. Awesome.”
In the next few years in California after I moved it became illegal to beat your wife, corporal punishment laws were changed, and the psychiatrist, who worked for the Department of Social Services in my case, was fired and lost his license for not reporting cases of sexual and child abuse to the State. I have no doubt that he was using my son as a case study for a book he was planning to write.
For the next five years I was busy raising teenagers and working and never did any serious church hunting, only attending church a couple of times with friends. I was tired of going to church and coming out still hungry.
Time went by quickly and soon my daughter graduated from high school, moved to California to go to college, and my brother was transferred to Korea and moved there with his family, leaving his dog with me.
I began a higher paying job, which entailed longer hours and many weekends. By this time my son was in high school and letting me know that he still hated the winters in Maryland. He was a California boy through and through and liked body boarding not snowboarding, skateboarding, and not skiing. He missed the beach and the warm weather. It killed me to let him go back to his dad’s, but I did. Sometimes the journey is not easy.
Contrasting the loss of my son to a man who had been so hateful to me, God did something amazing, miraculous, and wonderful. A friend asked me if I wanted to go to get some Greek food at a festival a church was having.
She had lived in Turkey for a time and had a yearning for some Mediterranean food. We went, sampled various items, and I found I really liked the dolmades. With tzatziki sauce. On the table at which we were sitting was a flyer that gave the schedule for the church tours they were giving. One was starting in 15 minutes so we thought we would take a look.
How can I explain to you what happened to me when I walked through the doors of that church and smelled the incense, and saw the flickering candles and the icons?
NOTHING in my life had prepared me for what I experienced in the Orthodox Church. I was on holy ground and did not know how to worship. The only thing I could think of was to take off my shoes! But here were candles to light! And big bright pictures of Saints. The scent of previously burned incense lightly permeated the air around us, like God in His omnipresence.
I did not know, why but I knew that God had met me there, and I had discovered what whatever it was I had been looking for all those many years ago. I still don’t know why God waited so long to reveal His True Faith to me. But obviously it was time for me to take my ticket and get on the Orthodox train!
After we completed the tour of the church I asked my friend if she would come to church with me the next day. She’s a very good friend and she did. We stood, we sang, we stood, we prayed, we stood, and continued standing some more. And a lot of it was in Greek.
It was different from anything I had ever experienced. It was liturgical and formal, the priest was a priest not a pastor, and he dressed funny. And I didn’t care, because at long last I had found what I began looking for back when I was five years old.
It is now twenty years later, the years have not easy, which may have been why God gave me the ticket when He did, but I have found the True faith and the hunger and thirst is being quenched, and I know where to go when I am thirsty or hungry – home to the Orthodox Church.
My Orthodox Journey
When you wrote about going to get Greek food and when you walked through the Church door the first time I cried! Yes, exactly! It really can not be explained to someone who has not done it. Thank you. Good story.
In many ways, this reminds me of own journey to Orthodoxy; a lot of suffering and challenges endured before finally arriving safe, sound, secure, and at long last spiritually satisfied in the Orthodox Church! Special thanks to the author for being courageous in sharing the dark moments of her journey since these, as much as the intense moments of joy, are indeed an integral part of our spiritual journeys of faith.