Friday, May 25, 2007

My Journey to Orthodoxy

Yesterday after I posted a little "gem" of political insight written some time ago, I realized that my blog is very heavily weighted toward political commentary. Though the situation in our world requires some action on that front, I didn't ever have the intention of making this my political pulpit. I also realized that, unlike several of the orthodox blogs I read occasionally, I didn't have the story of my journey to Orthodoxy posted. So, in the spirit of digging things out of the hard drive, here is the story of my journey as I wrote it just over two years ago.


My journey to Orthodoxy started about a year before I had ever heard of such a creature. As part of our preparations for marriage, my wife and I had been meeting regularly with Rev. Buddy Walker at A&M United Methodist Church. I was raised in a series of progressively more liberal Baptist churches, and Ashley had been raised in the Episcopalian Church. We both deigned to visit the denomination of the other, and both found worship in the unfamiliar setting unfulfilling.
As we began wedding preparations, one of our chief concerns was finding a beautiful church to be wed in. A&M United Methodist, because of its prominence and classic architecture, was an early favorite. We contacted the church office and found that a prerequisite for marriage in the church for non-members was attendance at seven worship services. We began visiting A&M United Methodist for worship in the Spring of 1998.

Also at this time I was taking a course on “Nature in Literature” and found the nature communing spirit of Emerson, Muir, Matthiessen, and Dillard very appealing. Further, I found in these works mystic connection and affirmation of the connection of spiritual and material things. I was especially interested to read the Buddhist thought in Matthiessen and even attended a talk given by a visiting Buddhist monk that semester.

When I talked with Rev. Buddy, I brought up the attraction that these philosophies held for me and his response was the first time that I believe that I had really been shaken out of a spiritual slumber. He indicated that the Christ who had spoken the Beatitudes would have no problem with the tenets of peace and communion in many Eastern philosophies. Rev. Buddy and I spend many afternoons together talking, especially because, at that point, his journey mirrored my own: he was raised in the Baptist church and had become Methodist as a young adult. The biggest points of contention for me, coming from an evangelical protestant background, were the things that Rev. Buddy told me about infant baptism and salvation as a process instead of an intellectual decision.
As I read the articles that Rev. Buddy gave me and listened to the sermons given by Rev. Charles Anderson on Sundays, I generally became more aware of the truth in the position that I was balking at. By the beginning of 1999, Ashley and I had decided to become full members of the Methodist Church, effectively negating our obligation to prove our attendance to be married. Of course, our attendance promptly fell off.

For a number of reasons, about six months prior to our wedding, I fell into a spiritual and emotional funk which gradually grew to a crisis. As any man at a time of crisis will, I thrashed about, looking for any sort of life preserver I could find. As it happened, my salvation had been sitting on my bookshelf for a year or so. My mom and stepfather are fond of giving me books as gifts; and I am equally fond of receiving them. The book, given to me by my parent, was The God Who Is There, by Francis Schaeffer. In this book, Schaeffer takes American society to task for becoming so relativistic, and, in the process, making God an optional entity. I mentioned to my parents that this book had made an incredible impact on my life, and I would be interested in reading more by the same author. This life-affirming work helped me re-establish perspective, along with the loving patience of my then-fiancée, and I was feeling generally good again.

My parents, meanwhile, started looking for Schaeffer in the library and bookstores. Instead of the Protestant apologist Francis, they found his son Frank. Frank Schaeffer’s book Dancing Alone: The Quest for Orthodox Faith in the Age of False Religion was their introduction to Orthodoxy. My parents had the opportunity after reading the book to visit Orthodox churches in California and near their home in St. Louis and were generally making their way toward the East. They sent me a copy of Dancing Alone for my birthday just before our wedding. In a phone conversation with my mom, I asked her what Orthodoxy was about. Her answer frustrated me and, admittedly, turned me away. She said, “you have to experience it.” I put the book away and went on with life. I know that my mother is an intelligent, articulate woman, and I just couldn't understand how she couldn't convey the sense of her experience.

Just after our wedding and honeymoon, my National Guard unit did a rotation at the National Training Center at Ft. Irwin, CA. I packed several books, among them Dancing Alone. My trip to the Mojave Desert was challenging for a number of reasons, among them my recent diagnosis with asthma and the harsh conditions, including wind, sand, and CS gas, which exacerbated it. Our presence at NTC was just a handful of support personnel attached to a company in our home battalion, guys who we knew vaguely, but not men we had trained with on a regular basis. Once at NTC, we were reassigned to the Quartermaster of the battalion that our tank company was sent to support. No one knew us personally, we were not faces—we were assets. Our experience at NTC was plagued by poor leadership, which at one point lost two vehicles in a night road march through the desert, and at another point left a remote fuel point unsupplied for two days. To make matters worse, the NCOIC of our detachment was a timid despot that refused to act as a filter for the abuse that came from above. Early in our stay at NTC, one of our small group of six, my co-driver, was called home because of the death of a grandparent. As a result, I was paired with the above NCOIC.

I was disappointed, but resigned. Of everyone in our group, my personality was best suited for rolling with the punches. Also, as a result I had lots of time to think and read. I read all of my other books before picking up Dancing Alone, but once I began reading, I found myself having an transcendent experience. Here was someone putting together pieces that I had been trying to sort out of all of the faith professions I had encountered over the years, and was making sense. Granted, Frank’s approach is acerbic, for which reason he has been subject to censure by some Orthodox bodies, but it worked well for me as a generally disillusioned seeker. My joy was so complete that I composed a song.
Upon returning home, I began my search in earnest. However, there were no Orthodox churches in Bryan/College Station; the nearest was in Houston, and I was not so committed yet to make the weekly pilgrimage. I did find out that the Orthodox Christian Fellowship, a student group at A&M, sponsored bi-monthly Liturgy at All Faiths Chapel. I started attending these sporadically, convincing Ashley to visit even less frequently. In early Spring of 2001, my journey had a jump start.

My parents had, as a result of reading and searching on their own, decided to become catechumens at a Greek Orthodox church near their home. We traveled to St. Louis to see my parents and two younger siblings be baptized at Assumption Greek Orthodox Church. We also had the privilege of seeing my parents’ marriage blessed. Over the course of the weekend, I had the opportunity to speak with their priest and sponsors, as well as experience my first Liturgy in a “real” church. The combination of sight, sound, smell, and touch made the experience almost overwhelming. Having come from a non-liturgical background, I felt completely out of place—but like I had finally made it home.

Once back in Bryan/College Station, I became even more ardent in my desire to learn more about the historical church. My interest coincided with the establishment of a mission community sponsored by an Antiochian parish in Houston. I attended Liturgies when I could, both on campus and at the mission. I was sincerely impressed by the talk given by Fr. Peter Gillquist about how his group of evangelical protestants had left the Campus Crusade group looking to find the authentic faith of the New Testament. What they discovered in the end was that the Church is alive and well.

The mission group started hosting Thursday-night discussion groups that acted as a catechism of sorts. I began to see in Orthodox theology the missing pieces, such as the ideas of the linking of spiritual and physical things that I had searched for in the Far Eastern philosophies. The overriding sense I had the more I studied Orthodoxy was that it was cohesive, not only internally, but externally as well. I read books such as Ladder of the Beatitudes by Jim Forrest, and Sacred Symbols that Speak, vol I & II that reaffirmed biblical Christianity on the firm ground of two millennia of consistent interpretation. I will readily admit that the appeal to historical evidence was one of the greatest factors in my decision to become Orthodox. I find it intellectually and spiritually fulfilling to affirm that God participates in, yet is not bound by the laws of, His creation.

On that note, the mysticism of the Church fulfilled the inveterate fantasy lover in me. Having had spiritual experiences in my life, and being presented with the overwhelming evidence of the supernatural across cultures and time, I found the complete disavowal of mysticism in the evangelical protestant tradition unfulfilling. In Orthodoxy I found some concrete answers, but more importantly, an allowance for the interaction of the spiritual and physical.

After having studied and spent a lot of time participating in worship, I contacted Fr. Matthew, the priest at St. Joseph Antiochian Orthodox Church in Houston—our sponsor parish, in the spring of 2002 to let him know that I felt that I had overstayed my welcome as a seeker and wanted to move forward toward formally committing myself to the Church as a catechumen. Fr. Matthew let me know that he already considered me a catechumen, though there was a service it make it “official.” Before we could get any farther, however, Fr. Matthew asked me how Ashley felt about becoming Orthodox. I had anticipated the question, but my answer “she’s got some hesitation, but she’s ok with it” didn’t cut the mustard. At this point, Fr. Matthew let me know that my marriage was an important component of my life spiritually—something I hadn’t thought much about—and that if my pursuit of Orthodoxy was going to become a point of contention in my marriage, that I should remain outside as a “friend of the Church.”

Having made such an arduous intellectual journey, I was floored. How could the “One, True Church” advise me to stay away? Gradually it dawned on me that the Church is the visible expression of the invisible God in this world and that by supporting and affirming my marriage—as it is intended to mirror the complete unity of the Trinity—the Church is affirming its own being. Thankfully, Ashley was interested in pursuing Orthodoxy as well, she just wanted to study and have some questions answered. To meet this need, we began meeting regularly with Fr. Matthew.

My wife is continuously a spiritual help to me because just as soon as I feel confident that I know something about God, she gives me a perspective or asks a question that is truly humbling. When we began our meetings with Fr. Matthew, I felt like I knew everything I needed to know. However, paradise keeps turning out like the end of C.S. Lewis’ The Last Battle; we keep going further up and further in. Fr. Matthew started at the beginning, all in all, quite a logical place to start.

In the Orthodox understanding of Creation is the root of the difference between Eastern and Western Christianity. The Orthodox understanding of the Fall is an incredible study and worthy of its own treatment; to sum up here: the direct consequence of Adam and Eve’s sin was the disruption of their communion with God. What is interesting is that studying the Biblical account shows that God didn’t just say, “that’s it, you’re outta here!” Instead, he gives them a chance to reestablish contact in asking them to confess, however, they persist in their sin and choose to blame anyone but themselves. By eating of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, Adam and Eve are imbued with knowledge that their experience was not mature enough to handle. Their actions also brought Death into the world and made them subject to his power. As an act of mercy, before Adam and Eve could disobey and eat of the other tree from which they had been warned, the Tree of Life, God removed Adam and Eve and all creation from Paradise. If He had not and they had eaten of the Tree of Life as well they would have become immortal and been forever subject to Death.

There is a wealth of theological implications here, one of which is that mankind is responsible for the removal of the Earth from a state of Paradise because we needed it to sustain us—therefore, our stewardship takes on a new level of responsibility. The best analogy for the Fall that I’ve heard is that Adam and Eve were like two people in a big warm house sitting next to the fire. They had been warned that if they were to go outside, they would not be able to get back in, yet they decide to go out of the warmth into the cold regardless. As a result, their children are born outside of the house unable to get back in, yet are innocent of making the decision to step outside in the first place. This is the Orthodox understanding of the Fall—our curse is not innate, it is the situation into which we are born. God made Adam and Eve a promise that He would send a deliverer that would reunite mankind to God; that is why Eve says after Cain’s birth “I have made a man with the LORD”—she believes that the promise is already being fulfilled.

The upshot of the Orthodox view of the Fall is that the image of God in man is not destroyed, it is marred, and damaged. Our salvation depends on the reestablishment of communion with God which was achieved in the person of Christ. This is why an Orthodox Christian will emphasize Christ’s birth, life, death and resurrection as all equally important to our salvation, whereas the evangelical protestant sees the rest as incidental to the crucifixion. In His Incarnation, Christ, God the Creator enters his Creation (time and space) and becomes physical matter for the sake of communion with us. As a result, all matter is sanctified. Christ’s baptism, likewise sanctifies all water and makes participation in the act of baptism mystical participation in the transformative life of Christ. Christ’s death is important because as God, He is the only being that could enter Death’s realm and defeat him, releasing humanity from Death’s rule. As a result of living in a fallen world, our physical bodies will still die, but we will not be eternally subject to Death. The caveat to this is that holy men and women throughout history, as a result of their faithful participation in the transformative life of Christ are so physically changed that their bodies are not corrupted even after death. This is why the Church says that salvation cannot be outside of the Church—because the Church is the only designated repository for the sacraments, which are the ways in which we participate in a mystical way in the physical life of Christ. Yet, at the same time, the Church affirms that truth is found all throughout creation because the image of God remains in man, it is only in the Church that the fullness of Truth resides. Further, the Church would affirm that salvation is God’s work and He can effect it anyway He so chooses; we are only given one path, and we must do what we know.

A total of four years passed between my starting to research the Ancient Church and my baptism. I was made a catechumen just eight months before my baptism. While I felt ready for conversion long before that, I think that God granted my priest insight about what I needed to learn that I didn't have. When I first started searching, participating in Orthodox worship in our town meant the once-a-month Liturgy that Fr. Matthew would do, and a smattering of OCF on-campus Liturgies. I read, my wife and I attended services, and I began to attend catechism classes. After about two-and-a-half years I felt moved to approach Fr. Matthew and tell him I felt I had overstayed my welcome as a seeker, and that I would like to become a catechumen. At that point he made me realize that my wife and I weren't in the same place and that we needed to I waited a bit longer. When we were made catechumens, it was a special event for our mission, and one that helped build a sense of community. We were received into the church, I through Baptism and Ashley through Chrismation, on Holy Saturday 2003.

There is so much that I have found corresponds with Orthodox theology; I continually find that it is a very satisfactory and robust explanatory framework for every facet of life. This has, as I noted earlier, been the most significant realization that I have made in my Journey. The idea that each of us is an icon of Christ in that the image of God remains in each of us resounds with the best aspects of progressive social theory. In the lives of the saints the consistent teaching of the Church is reaffirmed throughout history in a manner that only the worst kind of revisionism can ignore.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Radicalism as a Democratic Social Indicator

This was written almost exactly two years ago. Not recalling the impetus, I did a quick news search, and apparently the most important thing happening in the U.S. that day was the opening of Star Wars Episode III. Anyhow, it seems even more relevant today

In a society that purports to be democratic, revolutionary or regime changing tendency ought to be successfully channeled through the democratic process, assuming equal representation for all. Thus, widespread sentiment advocating radical change in a democratic society is a signal that the democratic process is not working and is in need of change.

Though this is a simple idea, it is one whose salience is lost on the majority of those in a position to negotiate change. A survey of major sociopolitical watershed moments in American history reveals that it is only when those in positions of power within the democratic society are threatened with embarrassment due to the inconsistency of their positions that change is made. One need only reflect on the slow and tortuous history of struggle for equal rights for women and persons of color in this country to discover the veracity of this statement.

I believe that the power of this idea is due in large part to the work of the framers of our nation’s government. Guided by a general principle of equal representation, the men that set out the governing principles for the country insisted on a pragmatic solution. They were more interested in forming a lasting government than a perfect one, and that is reflected in the adaptability of the Constitution and Bill of Rights.*
*In contrast to the Declaration of Independence, which articulates a more idealistic sense of government, the Constitution and Bill of Rights are more liberal in the application of the principles that infuse the spirit of the Declaration of Independence.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Christ is Risen!

This past Thursday, on which the Orthodox Church celebrated Christ's Ascension, I called a friend to make plans for the weekend. She greeted me with a hearty "happy feast day." I responded "Christ is Risen!"

My friend, who is not a convert (edit: like me), paused for a moment and then responded in Greek, "Alithos Anesti!" before asking whether or not we were allowed to use that greeting now, and I had to stumble through an apology for a bad religious pun (rise/ascend). I didn't broach the subject of St. Seraphim of Sarov's use of the Paschal greeting year round.

Anyhow, check out Fr. Joseph Hunnycutt's post (& podcast!) It's good for what ails me.