by Tudor Petcu
Another in our series by Romanian writer, Tudor Petcu. 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 Andy Franqueira.
1) First of all, I would be tempted to ask you about your spiritual experiences that you had over the years. Which of them were the most important in your life and why no one of them was helpful to you?
My mother is Irish, my father is Spanish, I was born and raised in England, and I did not grow up in a church going family. My first brush with spirituality was when I found myself at a Billy Graham evangelistic event back in 1989. At the age of 12 I was starting to contemplate the meaning of life and all that it entails. Following that event I began investigating Christianity and made my way to the local Anglican Church. I ended up staying there throughout my childhood; choosing to become a Christian and being confirmed in the Church of England. Although that church was somewhat old-fashioned and a bit dull for a teenage boy, it did impart one very important spiritual experience, that of church-as-family, the community of faith was something special and helped shape my experiences and expectations.
However, after some years I did feel something of a hunger for a deeper spiritual experience. About that time an evangelical phenomena took off that touched many churches in England. It was referred to as the Toronto Blessing, (see Wikipedia if interested), and was effectively a charismatic movement characterized by (often quite random) physical phenomena attributed to the Holy Spirit, and deeply emotional worship. I was intrigued by the concept of a physical experience of God and attended a number of events looking to get in on the wave. Nothing really came of it, the “spiritual” experiences all seemed rather random and without purpose. But the whole experience left me with one nagging question,
“Who is the Holy Spirit?”
That question would ultimately shape my journey and I never did find a satisfying answer within the breadth of protestant theologies.
Fast forward to my college years and I started to learn about historic Celtic Christianity. I had the opportunity to travel to the island of Iona, home of St Columba and a very ancient monastery. One night while I was rifling through books in the library I discovered a little old book, “On the Holy Spirit” by St. Basil the Great. My interest piqued, I read it through and made notes, as far as I could understand the contents they were profound. The experience of the monastery, treading in the places where many had gone before, and brushes with the ancient church, shaped my spirituality. It was something more meaningful than the “charismatic” phenomena mentioned earlier.
After college I met and married an American girl. My wife was also a Christian and had spent time in a heavily charismatic church that had caused her significant spiritual harm and made her very wary of churches. We eventually moved to the United States and found ourselves in a Methodist Church. We stayed for three years but the church didn’t provide much spirituality, it all seemed very superficial.
We eventually moved on to a non-denominational “church plant” that met in a movie theater. Hard rock worship, dynamic sermons, honest people sincerely seeking after God: it was a wonderful fellowship. However: disorganization, insipid theology, direction and leadership at the whim of a single pastor’s conscience: it was a lousy church. This was typified when the entire congregation broke apart one autumn in spectacular fashion. We moved on to another, similar church: we loved the fellowship, the commitment, the passion; we hated the vague theology, the lack of order, and the obsession with purity of evangelical belief coupled with a complete lack of actual doctrine to believe in! Church teaching came down to what one man thought to be true at any given time. Eventually we had to leave, completely disillusioned with Protestantism, its myriad beliefs, legalism and lack of compassion.
My wife wanted God but wanted to stop going to church entirely so we took a big step back. About this time I also located a copy of “On the Holy Spirit” by St. Basil the Great, and read through it yearning for the spirituality and fullness of that kind of faith.
2) What exactly happened to you from the spiritual point of view when you discovered Orthodoxy? How would you describe your Orthodox revelation?
After a while we decided to reset and explore all churches in our town, all denominations. We had to draw a line of what was fundamentally Christian, and the Nicene Creed seemed the obvious baseline. I knew that the Orthodox Catholic Church had written the Creed, which got me wondering about the Orthodox Church, I knew literally nothing about it! So I read, and the more I read the more fascinated I was with Orthodox theology, these folks seemed to have a solid doctrine, and it was compassionate, gracious and spiritual. So one morning we decided to visit the local Greek Orthodox Church, having been assured that we didn’t in fact need to be Greek.
The experience was very different, yet strangely moving, peaceful, spiritual and profound. That year we visited many churches, but we kept going back to the Orthodox Church, everything else seemed a pale imitation of church by comparison, with the exception of the Roman Catholic Church everything else seemed like children playing at being church. While visiting the wide range of churches in our town we also realized how much we missed the spirituality of sacramental life.
The more we explored Orthodoxy the deeper the love became. The theology and doctrine was continually astonishing in its continuity, grace and compassion. This church sounded like the Jesus we read in the Gospels. What surprised us even further was the orthopraxis, foreign at first it quickly became beautiful and challenging, a deeper and lasting spirituality. A challenge to live out the faith we professed. On top of everything, I finally felt that I had found a church that knew who the Holy Spirit is, (thanks to St Basil and Vladimir Lossky!)
3) Now I am asking you to talk about your Orthodox baptism. Where were you baptised and confirmed in the Orthodox Church?
Both my wife and I were baptized as babies in the Roman Catholic Church, although we never attended them. We both joined evangelical churches as teenagers. When we started attending the Orthodox Church we began meeting with our priest and discussing things in depth. Ten months after first stepping foot into the Orthodox Church we decided to become Orthodox. We were received into the church by Chrismation on Palm Sunday 2014 at Sts Kosmas & Damianos Greek Orthodox Church, Rochester, MN, USA.
4) Could you say that your conversion to Orthodoxy represented some kind of rebirth of your soul?
That’s probably not the term I would use. I would say that it was a home coming, as our priest said, we were “already Orthodox we just didn’t know it yet”. For us the Orthodox Church was everything that we were missing while we were at other churches. It was less a rebirth and more a finding the family that could show us how to be who we really were.
5) Which are the most important Orthodox prayers for you?
There are so many to choose from! Coming from a protestant evangelical background we had been taught that for prayer to be genuine it had to be spontaneous, i.e. reading pre-written prayers was not meaningful. What we discovered was that praying through liturgical prayers in addition to one’s own can be hugely liberating and profound. Some of the most treasured for us are:
- The Lord’s Prayer
- The Jesus Prayer
- The Morning Prayer of Metropolitan Philaret
- The Lenten Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian
- The Prayer of Manasseh
And even one or two Anglican prayers that derive from the Orthodox period
6) I have met by now many converts to Orthodoxy who were saying the Orthodox Church is the hospital founded by Jesus Christ. Do you think so? If so, what would be your main argue?
Absolutely yes! Now are we talking soteriology or Church primacy? Or to put it another way which of the following do you mean exactly?
- the Orthodox Church is the hospital founded by Jesus Christ
- the Orthodox Church is the hospital founded by Jesus Christ
Assuming the former, as heterodox Christians my wife and I challenged and struggled with the Western soteriology that focuses on legal transgressions and escape from punishment. So as we discovered the Eastern focus on healing from sickness and corruption it is a natural and obvious mission of the church to be a hospital of healing, it is part of the cohesive soteriology that we found unique in the Eastern Church.
Now if you mean the latter I would be more circumspect, I’m not convinced it’s my place to make that argument. I think I would settle for saying that I wouldn’t want to be part of any church that does not have unbroken Apostolic Succession and catholicity. But it also seems evident that the Holy Spirit is at work beyond the bounds of the church.