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 post, he interviews Fr. Brian Noel, an American Convert to Orthodoxy.
First of all, I would like you to talk a little bit about yourself and about your conversion to Orthodoxy, so that our readers discover your personality.
I am currently a 30 year old working professional. I am a counselor. I am not married nor do I have any children. I was born and baptized and confirmed as Roman Catholic. My parents raised me with those values. Throughout my short life thus far, I have always sought to increase my understanding of the Christian Faith. Even when I was a child I enjoyed bible stories or religious studies. I even pretended to say mass as a kid. I went to a Catholic grade school but I did not attend a Catholic High School. I remember getting upset with my parents for not sending me to a catholic school. Instead I attended a public high school. I understand why my parents did it. They wanted me to have a better education and greater opportunities. So I continued with my religious education with my parish’s youth group. I was a pretty active member. For me, it was like I couldn’t get enough theology. I what I realize now is that I was really searching for the academic or scholastic part of theology and not what I have found in Orthodoxy to be the true search for God. It is said a theologian is one who prays. I was more one who studied. Yes I prayed and tried to do so on a regular basis. I faced many challenges to my faith practice from my peers.
After high school, I went to catholic college seminary for 3 years. I eventually became ill in my Junior year of college and did not return to seminary for my fourth year but went to the university side of the college. The campus was split into two sections. One for the seminarians and one for the college students. Both sides interacted fairly often. Once treated as a brother with the seminarians, I now felt rejected by them. I had one friend remain who was a seminarian. All my other friends stopped talking to me. This was extremely hard to deal with. But ultimately this was the beginning of my conversion.
Ever since 2008 when I left the seminary, I struggled with going to church on Sundays. Something in me felt off, like I didn’t belong. I would regularly go to spiritual direction but it didn’t seem to help. I was always very nervous and anxious when going back to the parish of my teenage years, even when simply visiting.
After 3 years of grad school I returned to live with my parents in June 2013. I continued to feel this same way of not belonging and of anxiety of going to church. So, I decided to branch out a bit. Not much, at that time I still believed that the catholic church was the true church. I had learned about eastern catholics or byzantine catholics when in seminary. There was a parish in Harrisburg, PA that I began attending. Granted it was about an hour and a half away for me, but I knew I needed to stay close to God.
This parish was instrumental in my conversion to Orthodoxy. At first I was lost in the services as I only attended a few previously, but then I became a bit more aware of what was going on in the services. I eventually was an altar server though I didn’t know too when what was going on. Still really fresh with the whole divine liturgy. But the music was angelic and the temple beautiful. I did start to feel home and comfortable attending church again. But maybe 6 months later I stopped attending that parish and became a catechumen in the Orthodox Church.
In my search for God, I went out seeking all the knowledge that I could in terms of the eastern Christian spirituality. All I really could find was Orthodox books. I listened to podcasts. Fr. Hopko of blessed memory, was by far my favorite at the time. He had a special on the Divine Liturgy. So I was listening and realized my catholic parish was not following those norms of the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church. I also began to realize that the byzantine catholic churches weren’t following true Orthodox teaching. There was a disconnect between catholic theology and Orthodox theology. The byzantine catholics were trying to straddle both sides but the theologies have irreconcilable differences.
What ultimately drew me to an Orthodox Church was vespers. In my hunger to know more of the eastern Christian life and spirituality, I wanted to enter into the full liturgical life of the church. At the time, the parish I was attending did not have vespers. So I started to go to Holy Apostles Orthodox Mission in Mechanicsburg, PA for vespers. I was introduced there to several people who are now my close friends. In talking to them and learning about the Orthodox Church, I slowly began to question the teachings of the catholic church.
I can remember the moment very well. It was Holy week of 2014. This year Pascha and easter were on the same day. I spent a few services at Holy Apostles during the Holy Week again because the parish I was at did not have them. I came to Holy Saturday Divine Liturgy. This was the first Divine Liturgy I attended at an Orthodox Church. There were differences that I noticed. In the end, I did not go to the Paschal services with Holy Apostles that year. I was of the mind set that since I’m catholic, I should attend a catholic church for easter. I went to the parish next morning as that parish did not celebrate easter at midnight. Throughout the entire liturgy I felt like I didn’t belong again. I kept having the same thought, “I don’t believe the same things as this parish anymore.” The following Sunday, I went to Holy Apostles for Divine Liturgy. About a month later, I was a catechumen in the Orthodox Church.
What is the most important change in your life since you have become Orthodox?
That is difficult to say. Much has really changed in my life since I began my journey to Orthodoxy. I think that maybe the most important change would be how I look at the world. I don’t see the world as evil necessarily or that its very nature is evil, but that as Orthodox Christians we are called to sanctify the world. In everything we do we are to glorify God and bring all of creation back to Him through our prayers, sacrifice, and practice of the True Faith.
Do you think that the Orthodox Church could be considered a some kind of hospital for wounded souls?
I think that the Church is exactly that, a hospital. It is especially clear when we look at the theology of ancestral sin and how the Church sees sin. The Church sees it as sickness. We are hurt in body and soul when we sin. The only healing available for us is Christ Himself. That is why we have the Mysteries. Christ is the Divine Physician. We all need healing from our passions and sins.
Please describe in some words how does the Orthodox life in the US look like.
I’m not sure if I can adequately describe it. I think it looks much like it does in other countries; however, we do not get off on the feast days as we do for holidays. This makes it much harder to celebrate the feasts as we should. I think there is possibly some hardship in America for the simple fact that the American culture is opposed in many ways to the Orthodox life. This is a major challenge but not one that cannot be overcome. I know in my home parish, it is a very close knit group and many of the parishioners give much of what they have for the parish and each other and will when they are able to do so celebrate the feasts as best as they can and follow the fasts as well. I think the hardest thing for Orthodox in America is simply lack of understanding from those looking in. There is very much a missionary aspect to America still going on since the time of first Orthodox to come to North America. I think in some countries there is more understanding of the Faith and acceptance of the practices. But I also believe this is quickly diminishing as the a secular minded culture continues to take over.
Do you think that the American Orthodoxy could flourish in the future and if so, how?
I’m not too sure how to answer this. I do believe that American Orthodoxy can flourish just as it has in other countries especially what are referred to as the old countries. But time is most definitely needed. Hard work is an absolute imperative. I think the only way that Orthodoxy will flourish in America is if we truly practice the Faith to the best of our ability and live as Christ taught use through the holy apostles. We must not waver or dilute the teachings of the Church. I think of St. Andrew Orthodox Church in Riverside, California as what it could be like. I think they give us a good example.
Given that you are a convert to Orthodoxy how can Orthodoxy in your opinion become a way of living? Not least, which would be your testimony for the heterodox individuals who intend to explore more the orthodox horizon?
I do not know if it can become a way of living, but is by its very nature a way of living. Similar to what I’ve been saying, our every action is to be a holy action, one that brings us and others and all of creation closer to God. Granted this does not happen the instance of baptism or chrismation. I think in order to live the Orthodox Faith, we must begin at the very bottom. We must start out with those things which we are able to do. If that means fasting from meat and dairy, we start there. If it means that we begin a prayer life however simple under the direction of a spiritual father, we start there. Slowly and in time do we become fully immersed in the Faith and Orthodox way of life. We do this until we go the dread judgement seat of Christ. And even there all we can do is cry out, “Lord have mercy”.
Which would be your main argue for saying that the entire truth can be found only in the Orthodox Church?
This is what has led me to the True Faith. It is the faith that has kept the teachings of Christ handed down through the apostles and preserved by the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. I can only speak from my experience. For me, Church history was vital to my conversion. It is clear throughout history that all the other churches: protestant, catholic, oriental orthodox, have in some way diverted from what was taught by the apostles and upheld by the Fathers and Mothers of the Church. When I studied Chruch history, I saw these other communities break away from the Orthodox Faith. What the nail in the coffin was for me was the addition in the west to the Creed that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. The Ecumenical Counsel clearly stated that no should change the Creed. Unfortunately the west did that. I would say the One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic, and True Church is Orthodoxy because it has remained unaltered in its doctrine.
In your opinion which Orthodox thinkers or representatives have contributed most to the evolution of Orthodoxy in the US?
I can really only name a few: Fr. Thomas Hopko and Fr. Schmemmen of blessed memory. I cannot say that I know much more than that. I do believe that Fr. Josiah Trennam has had a big influence and may have an even bigger influence in the future.