by Jon Boatwright
My journey to the Orthodox Church began in a way that has been hard for me to put into words. People often ask me why I converted to the Eastern Church from a Protestant tradition. That’s usually when I start rambling. But I’ve also discovered that many others have similar difficulties. It’s simply difficult to describe the inner life. Then I’ll try to keep to the stepping stones.
As a young man attending a little Baptist church in Arkansas I recall loving Sunday School but somewhere there began emerging a questioning or even uneasiness regarding Baptist teachings or rather their answers to my questions and I had lots of them. But these were back burner issues and I got saved one Sunday while a teenager.
Like many college students I fell away from attending church but not my faith. I began a personal journey to transform myself by becoming very strict and disciplined through fasting, martial arts, weight lifting, running and a slight bent toward meditation. It was during this period that I had a very troubling occurrence.
Without going into it at length I became very distressed by what I can only attribute to spiritual warfare. Compulsive blasphemous thoughts were taking over my every moment. I couldn’t concentrate, reason or focus. I recall the very moment it started. I was a normal, naïve and easy going guy. I simply couldn’t fathom that this sort of thing was happening to me.
One night I joined some friends at a movie theater. I couldn’t focus on the movie nor anything else I was so distressed. The blasphemous words running in a loop in my mind. I left without any explanation, rushed home, fell to my knees at my bedside and begged God to help me. Then the Holy Spirit passed through and around me. It felt like a wind blowing in my midst, in my gut. It was strikingly real. The tormenting words stopped immediately. Tears of joy came and then peace and I began hearing the Lord’s name gently repeated: Jesus, Jesus, Jesus. It was more like a praise. Now it reminds me of when I read of the Holy Angels constantly singing God’s praise, Holy Holy, Holy. It was like that. A repeating praise that was also healing me.
At some point down the road I realized that I had taken on the discipline of repeating the Lord’s name. It was no longer other than me but I said it ever so willingly. Not unlike breathing.
Flash forward to many years later. I was living in Austin, Tx for a short while. One day standing on the sidewalk at the edge of the UT campus talking with two young ladies we heard the sound of the skidding of tires and as the girls froze I turned to look just in time to see a car running onto the sidewalk. It hit me taking me down the sidewalk with it but luckily missing the girls. The car was traveling quite fast and had skidded out of control driven by a drunk college student and his friend. My head hit the windshield then as we traveled down the sidewalk I slid off the hood ending up underneath the car. I suffered a shattered leg, knee, distressed hip and concussion. This began a two year recovery period where I spent most of my time in my apartment having lost everything except the tiny apartment due to the loving support of friends.
It was sometime during this period that a friend introduced me to a Centering Prayer group at the Episcopal Church on campus. Well, I had joined the Methodist church just prior to the accident and since the two churches were close both in proximity and practice it was convenient. The practice became a great balm for me during this difficult time. It was leading me into a practice of surrendering to God in a way I hadn’t before and since I was in such a vulnerable and weak position I went as deep as I could. Before long I began experiencing His presence and Spirit in indescribable ways. I began searching out mystical writings from the Western mystics, first in books because I didn’t have the internet yet. I’m glad it began with books as this allowed me to focus and be more intent in my searching.
Then one night I had a dream. By now my dreams had become deeply spiritual. In the dream I was walking with a couple of friends going to a church which I think we attended somewhat regularly. But this particular time as we approached the large church I noticed next door, just off of the street a bit, a small church that I hadn’t noticed before. I found this very odd and fascinating. I headed toward it. My friends asked where I was going and I replied that I had to see what was going on in there. The church was maybe half full and the priests were going to and fro. I asked what was going on and someone replied
“It’s the eternal Mass. The communion that never ends”
It struck me that the church was so much larger on the inside than on the outside. Years later while attending Liturgy at St. Sophia in Los Angeles where I converted I remembered this dream that had such an impact on me and knew that the little church was an Orthodox Church and very likely St. Sophia though it is a cathedral church and quite large.
I found a book on the discount rack at a bookstore called “ In the Spirit of Happiness” by the Monks of New Skete. I was very taken by the book as it used a literary device of a Seeker visiting a monastery. An Eastern Orthodox monastery. I read the book at least twice. It was speaking to a contemplative mind that had developed within me that I could not turn away from nor did I want to.
Then came more and more books, articles and seeking. Soon while visiting my sister and her family in Virginia my brother in law gave me a copy of The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware. Since I had ridden to Virginia with my brother and his fiance I read the book in the back seat in one sitting basically on the return trip. I knew in a troubling yet comforting way that this was the true Faith.
My reading and searching continued for several months until I finally decided to visit an Orthodox Church. By then I had acquired the internet and found a Russian church in the middle of neighborhood in South Austin. It was Saturday and they were having services of some sort that evening. Still on a walking cast and cane I immediately hobbled the two blocks to the bus stop.
The little church looked like a log cabin. On first entering I was taken aback by the incense and icons. A nice monk there took to my questions with much sympathy. He invited me to sit and talk. As chance would have it the Abbot had been out of town and was racing back to conduct Vespers but something held him up and the service didn’t happen. So the monk and I talk a lot. He gave me his copy of The Way of a Pilgrim. I left thanking him and agreeing to return it within a week.
As I stumbled in the darkness the 3 or 4 blocks to the bus stop I was feeling spent and troubled. There were no sidewalks, my leg was hurting and breathing heavily I said aloud,
“There is no way I’m going to say the Jesus Prayer 10 or 20,000 times a day. Not going to happen!”
though I was already repeating the Holy name of Jesus countless times each day anyway.
A week or two later I attended another service at the Church to return the book to the monk. It was then that Father Aiden lovingly attended to me during the service and walked me through certain things with brief explanations sometimes and anointing me with Holy oil at the end. The anointing had a great affect on me. Either he or another priest gave me several of the church programs to take home with had brief lessons printed inside and icons on the outside.
Upon arriving home I had the urge to place the programs on a table, focusing on the icons, knelt before them and prayed asking for guidance. There again was the warm Presence of the Holy Spirit in my heart. I knew the Spirit was telling me that I was on the right path. But this was very troubling to me because I didn’t want to become a strict Orthodox Christian. I didn’t want to become a fanatic religious guy as I thought Orthodox Christians probably were.
By now I was becoming troubled anyway by the how the Protestant churches were bowing to cultural pressures and becoming more divided. I slowly had begun coming to accept that perhaps I was being called to keep moving and that could only mean finding the ancient faith.
I was sure the faith as described by Bishop Ware was the true faith but wasn’t the Roman Catholic church the true ancient church? I enrolled in the RCIA class at the local Catholic church. I enjoyed the class but there were certain obstacles I couldn’t get around such as Papal infallibility. Then a few days before we were to be Chrismated into the church I got an acting job shooting in Las Vegas. So, I had to decide whether to take the much needed job or to join the Catholic church. What a choice! By now I had fully recovered physically and needed to rebuild my life. It seemed to me that God was placing things in my life as I needed them. So, I took the job not being 100% settled on the Catholic arguement.
I continued my search while attending the Methodist church. I stood at the fork in the road of the divided ancient church. Who left who? I simply couldn’t tell who’s side of the story was accurate. Then at some point I realized that if something had been added to or taken away from the Creed or doctrine that would probably be the best indication that I will find of where the error lay for my own satisfaction to move forward. I had made plans to move back to Los Angeles in a year and during this period decided to take the plunge and convert to the Orthodox Church once I moved. I was having such a paradigm shift from all the research, exploring and practice that I simply found I was just there. I loved attending Catholic services alternately with the Methodist services but I had just come to realize the fullness and bottomlessness of Orthodoxy. Dostoevsky said
“Beauty will save the world”
and the Orthodox church fully embodied this. It was a faith and an experience I could not fully grasp. I could only be in it.
I converted at St. Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Los Angeles on April 1 2010. April Fools Day! Thanks to Fr. Allan Boyd himself a Protestant convert and fellow Southern boy. He guided me and determined I was ready by saying
“Let’s get some oil on you”.
Fr. John Bakas, the Dean of St. Sophia, has been a great influence and example especially after Fr. Allan was reassigned to another Parish.
In the Orthodox Church I found a grounded faith that embraces mystery. I found a communion with the Saints who are very real to me and a love for the Mother of God that I wouldn’t have known before. Now I also see that I’m on a footpath, ancient and worn with many signs along the way. Did I stumble upon it or was I led?
Perhaps a little of both.