by Benjamin Pass
I have long debated writing of my journey to Orthodoxy. I was unsure if I should bother; particularly since there was no dramatic, miraculous sign which led me to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. At times, it has seemed as though I simply moved from book to article, and through the process of reading and asking questions, arrived in a difference place. Yet I understand the Lord has guided this journey and led me somewhere beautiful and spiritually living. This year, I was received into the Orthodox Church (during Holy Week) and I truly feel I have come home. I was baptized and chrismated, and have experienced the joy and life given through the sacraments. Yet my journey was not a spur of the moment decision nor was it a choice made lightly.
I was raised within a Pentecostal stream of Protestantism and had my life planned out within that tradition. I had pastored for seven years and had completed three years in my return to university where I was studying theology in preparation to teach at the university level. I was content in what I had always known, and had no plans to seek out anything else. All I had to do was keep my head down, complete my studies, and then move on to my future. In fact, I had every reason to stay where I was, be patient, and not rock the boat. However, I can confidently say that God had a different plan for me.
My journey to the Orthodox Church was gradual and sitting here now, I can see God’s hand had guided me for years toward this end; even if I didn’t realize it at the time. Though I was raised as a Protestant, my heritage on my father’s side was Jewish. My mother taught me to love my history (as well as history in general), and to seek the old ways. For years, I have loved and been inspired by Jeremiah 6:16. The prophet spoke to a rebellious people:
Thus says the Lord: “Stand in the ways and see, and ask about the eternal pathways of the Lord. See what the good way is and walk in it. Here you will find purification for your souls….”
Yet the translation with which I was the most familiar rendered it:
Thus saith the LORD, “Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls….” (Emphasis mine).
Even though those who heard the prophet’s words were refusing to follow those paths, over time, my heart had come to long for the old paths; for the well-worn trails blazed by God’s people over the previous millennia. To that end, I began seeking to discover more about my heritage. My plan was not to convert to Judaism, but to discern if there was a way to get back to early Christianity (a goal toward which it seems every new denomination and emphasis within Protestantism aims). I wanted a Christianity like the Apostles taught and knew; I wanted to recover the kind of Christianity intended from the beginning. Again, this is not to say I was necessarily unhappy, but I wanted to see if there was something more accurate and more traditional than what I had known.
It must be mentioned at this point that I was still somewhat jaded toward anything not clearly explained by Scripture. I am ashamed to admit that I was very critical of any tradition save my own, and the concept of Church Tradition shaping the rule of faith and explaining Scripture rubbed me the wrong way. Nowhere was this more evident to me than when I attempted, in my arrogance, to “disprove” the clause from the Apostles’ Creed:
“He descended into Hell.”
Mercifully, my studies proved clearly that my bias was foolishness, and my belief against the clause in question was unfounded. Imagine, if you will, a brash, arrogant Protestant discovering suddenly that there was more to Tradition than he ever thought; there was truth beyond a straightforward reading of Scripture. Looking back today, it is clear to me that this was my first step toward Orthodoxy; my Protestant preconceptions of sola scriptura were being overturned and replaced with a respect for Tradition. I was humbled to realize what I had always assumed was wrong; tradition was not meaningless and empty, but contained the proper way to understand Scripture (and in fact, gave us Scripture!).
I was unsure as to where I should begin my search for the more accurate faith, but during my journey, I became more familiar with a liturgical style of service and with hearing services in languages I was just learning. As part of my studies, I learned beginning Biblical Hebrew and Greek. I also began to study Second Temple Judaism and came across accounts and debates concerning the creation of the Scriptural canon. For the first time, I began to read books which the Protestant Bible had ejected as being non-Scriptural. I was astounded to read “extended versions” of Esther and Daniel and to see how well the “additions” fit. I began to question the Protestant canon and to think a mistake had been made in removing books which would have been present in the Septuagint; how could the church tradition I followed remove books Jesus would have possessed in His Scriptures (even if they were considered to be deuterocanonical in His day as so many claim)? My research and reading led me to consider looking into Messianic Judaism, but even that left me with concerns. It seemed that no matter where I looked within Protestantism, the differences were adiaphora; little of actual substance. What was I to do? Roman Catholicism was certainly no live option for me; this led me to believe I should remain where I was and simply grow my understanding by studying Tradition and seeking out a more complete Bible.
When I entered my third year of university, I was enrolled in classes for Church History and Contemporary Theology (more accurately, 19th-21st Century Theologians). In Church History, the professor mentioned the Eastern Church in passing and in a fairly negative light. In a Protestant setting, this is fairly unsurprising, and I did not think twice about it; that is, until reading about Orthodox theology in Contemporary Theology. Again, this was only a brief treatment, but my theology professor was considerably more irenic and knowledgeable in his discussion of the text we were considering. We were assigned two brief readings; one of Bulgakov and another of Florovsky. I was amazed by what I read; particularly so by Florovsky’s writing on the Catholicity of the Church. I had heard about church unity ad nauseum, particularly in school, but this reading was different. I had heard time and again about the need for Christian unity, but it had always sounded hollow to me.
How can unity exist in any meaningful way among people who cannot agree with each other on some of the most important of topics? Yes, Protestants agree about the fact Jesus was fully human and fully divine in the Incarnation, but there are so many other divisions. This was particularly concerning in light of the Reformation era definition of the church. They claimed the church is the place where Scripture is properly taught and the Sacraments are rightly administered. Yet how can this be if the interpretation of the Bible varies so drastically between denominations? What of the fact that there are such divergent views of the Sacraments? How can the Lutherans and Zwinglians both be Christian under that definition if one claims Eucharist is nothing more than symbol and the other claims there is “some manner” of Presence? How can the Arminians and Reformed Protestants both be Christian under the Reformation era definition if they disagree so plainly on the meaning of Scripture (particularly in relation to freedom and predestination) and the Sacrament of Baptism?
Many times, the repeated exhortations for unity among the churches sounded pointless. It seemed to be more of an instruction to be silent and not offend anyone with a rigid interpretation of Scripture than anything else; it seemed eerily like the liberalism sweeping over our world which permits everyone to have an opinion as long as that opinion does not hurt someone else’s feelings. Yet when I read Florovsky’s writing on unity and catholicity, something was different; it was real. The Church about which he wrote seemed to have an actual claim to unity. Yes, there is certain room for adiaphora within Orthodoxy, but there is also a very strict set of standards to which all Christians must hold; there is a standard of belief which is held equally by the entirety of the Orthodox Church.
I was blessed to be taking that particular course with my best friend, also a theology student, and we became excited with researching the Orthodox Church. Over the next several months, we continued our research and became more and more interested. I should also note there were discoveries we made which left our souls ill at ease. For example, when we first read St. Cyprian’s writing On the Unity of the Church, we realized plurality was insufficient; we could not simply remain as Protestants while drawing upon ancient Tradition. When we realized the Orthodox Church had been in existence since the beginning, our interest was increased again and I reached out to Father John. He was a tremendous help and put us into contact with a local priest: Father Andrew of St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Saint John, New Brunswick. Father Andrew is a wonderful, friendly, and patient man who has been a blessing and an aid in our journey. He invited us to come to the Church and offered to answer any questions we still had. I do not know if he quite knew what he was getting into with the two of us and our penchant for detailed questions, but he kept his word. The first service we attended was on the feast day of St. Nicholas; certainly, fortuitous timing. Over the next several months, we continued our research, attended Church, and asked as many questions as entered our minds.
From that very first service we attended, I knew there was something massively different from anything I had experienced before. Not only did I feel a peace I had never felt in any other church, but I also felt a link; a connection with the Church throughout the ages. Rather than merely feeling emotional or experiencing a transitory brush with the Spirit of God, I felt as though I had somehow stepped into the throne room of Heaven. Looking upon the icon of Christ, I felt as though I stood directly before God Himself and no longer simply stood in a building in Canada. In short order, my friend and I became catechumens, and we continued learning as much as we could. Over this time, many of the hallmarks of Protestantism fell away from my mind as irrelevant at best. A solely memorial view of the Lord’s Supper? There was no longer any convincing Scriptural basis. Sola scriptura? Without the grand Tradition, we would not have Scripture. A bias against icons and the intercession of the Saints was quashed fairly quickly after talking to Frs. John and Andrew. One by one, my concerns were assuaged and the confirmation that this was the Church became more solidified.
Finally, my wife, my friends and I all became part of the Greek Orthodox Church. I am overjoyed to be hearing the Scriptures in their original language (a truly beautiful experience) and joining in with the Divine Liturgy in connection with the living, continuing Church. More recently, another friend has become a catechumen and many others have been asking questions, attempting to come to understand the Church about which they have been told little. Yet even after all this, I know our journey is not complete. We have merely begun the journey of a lifetime but now, we are finally walking in the proper path. The future is exciting, and I am so thankful for all who helped guide us.
We are finally home.