by Tudor Petcu
A Romanian writer, Tudor is a graduate of the Faculty of Philosophy, University of Bucharest, Romania. He has published a number of articles related to philosophy and theology in different cultural and academic journals. His work focuses on the evolution of Orthodox spirituality in Western societies as well and he is going to publish a book of interviews with Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. In this article, he interviews William Harrington, an American Convert to Orthodoxy.
TP: With your permission, I am interested to find out more information about your spiritual personality before becoming an Orthodox. Who were you before before discovering Orthodoxy and what was your view on life and its purpose?
William Harrington: Right now, I am teaching adults who never graduated high school and want to get their diploma. I live in Parsons, Kansas on the edge of the GreatPlains and I travel about an hour to get to a small mission in Joplin Missouri. About fifteen years ago, things were quite different. I had been married, but my wife cheated, then got a divorce. This is accurate and I don’t think there is much I could have done that would have changed what happened, but it did make me take a look at my life and see what was missing. My parents were both in the Air Force. My mother had been raised a Low Church protestant and my Father had grown up in an Irish-German Catholic family. He left Catholicism for her and I was baptized by a United Methodist Air Force chaplain.
We attended several different denominations, but by the time I was a teenager, my father had retired from the Air Force and became an Agriculture teacher. We settled in a really small town outside of the small town of DeSoto, Wisconsin. I hunted, fished, worked on farms, and we attended a Methodist church. I was deeply involved and considering becoming a minister, but after I attended college, I drifted away and became your typical secular American.
After the divorce, though, I knew something was missing. I went back to a Methodist church. The Pastor was wonderful. Korean and traditional. Then one Sunday I showed up and they had replaced my pastor with someone that I hesitate to call a Christian. This can’t be the Church, I thought. I quit going, but I had another chance to find what I needed. I have long been involved with a medieval re-creationist group called the Society for Creative Anachronism. The SCA has a huge on-line presence on the internet and I belonged to several e-mail lists devoted to the SCA. One of these groups was called PerRel for period religion.
Some people probably thought it meant peril, considering the arguments that we regularly engaged in, but we were a group that enjoyed honest, good arguments. It was on this list that I confessed that I was looking for a church but felt that most protestant churches were unreliable and changeable. One person, a member of a Greek Orthodox Church asked me if I had considered Orthodoxy. The seed was planted. At the time, I was living in Tacoma, Washington. I visited an Orthodox Church in America parish. It was intimidating, but fascinating. Shortly after this, I moved halfway across the continent, basically because I had not been able to rebuild my life after the divorce, and I found that a bachelor’s degree in History (which I had earned) had no real value.
So who was I? I was a well-educated person with a passion for history who had been broken by a failed marriage and, another relationship that had not worked out (I know, I hadn’t mentioned it before). I didn’t believe I had much value and I knew I needed Christ, but I wasn’t able to find Him in Protestant churches or by myself. I was going home to start over and figure my life out. I was in my mid-thirties and starting over, this time in Southern Illinois. I had never been there, but my family was there, so it was home. I found a job working with drug addicts and convicts getting out of prison. I was good at this job and I liked helping people. I was thinking of becoming a counselor. But I knew I still needed more. The seed had been planted.
TP: Which was the main reason why yiu have made the decision to convert to the Orthodox Church? What exactly have you discovered in Orthodox spirituality?
William Harrington: In 2003, I was researching Orthodoxy on-line when I read the difference between Protestantism’s view that God the Father has to punish us for our sins, but Christ took the father’s wrath upon himself. I discovered the Orthodox view that God loves us so much that Christ became one of us and died like us, just to conquer death so we can live. It was like such a weight was lifted off of me that I think I remember crying. I looked in the phone book, found the only Orthodox Church in southern Illinois and went the next Sunday. I didn’t have the courage to do more than stand in the back, but I watched everyone go to the front to kiss the cross at the end of the liturgy. The next Sunday I was there and at the end of liturgy I joined everyone in line and, when I stood before Father George, I introduced myself and said I had to become Orthodox. I was chrismated (I had already been baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit) in about a month after Father got the go ahead from Bishop Job.
What I have discovered is a road that is hard to walk, but never grows boring. A well with no bottom. I found the Church that I had started looking for after the divorce. I remember the Sunday after I was Chrismated, the choir grabbed hold of me, put a book in my hands, and told me I would be singing with them. This was a small church with maybe, maybe, twenty people in it. Most of them didn’t actually sing. What I heard that Sunday was incredible. There was a glorious choir behind us but when I turned around I didn’t see one. I have never heard that again, but I believe I was allowed to hear the heavenly choir for that moment to let me know I was in the right place.
TP: Can you say that becoming Orthodox, you have lived the most important or the deepest spiritual revolution?
William Harrington: No. The problem is that past tense. It’s been twelve years, but I feel like I’m just getting started and the most important and deepest spiritual revolution is still ahead of me.
TP: How and why in your oppinion can Orthodoxy help people to gain redemption?
William Harrington: First. And I can’t stress this enough. We are the Church of Christ. This is not triumphalism, it’s just fact. I’m not interested really, in speculating whether salvation can be found outside the Church. The important thing is we have the Church. She gives us all the mysteries we need for salvation. The hard thing for Protestants to understand is the mysteries are not just symbols. Baptism is really dying and rising with Christ just as we hope to do again at the resurrection. Communion really is the body and blood of Christ and through this we become part of the body of Christ. In addition, we have the teaching and wisdom of two thousand years of saints, not to mention Christ and his Apostles, on the nitty gritty details of what we need to do to become more Christ like. How to pray, how to fast, how to feast, it’s all part of what the Church gives us. As we grow, we can enter deeper into this ocean of teaching, pray better, and become ever more like Christ.
TP: Considering that you are a convert to Orthodoxy, what would be the most important lesson that everyone of us should learn in the Orthodox Church?
William Harrington: The Church is the pearl of great price. I often envy cradle orthodox, but I also see that they often take the Church for granted. They are no different from Protestants and Roman Catholics in this. The Church has more to do with who they see themselves as and less to do with a commitment to living for Christ. I would say, take the time to look at what you have. Its been given too you. Others have had to search for it, many have died to keep it. Don’t take it for granted.
This interview is one of many that will be published in the book “The rediscovery of Orthodox heritage of the West” by Tudor Petcu, containing interviews with different Westerners converted to Orthodoxy. It will be published in two volumes and the first one will appear by the end of this year.