(Hi all. Below is the story of my relationship with Orthodoxy, which finally ended with my chrismation a little over a month ago. It is basically a long personal essay, so don't feel any obligation to read it, but I thought it might be of interest to some people. Also, this board - I think it was this board - plays a role in the proceedings.)
I grew up without any particular religious convictions. Both my parents were raised Catholic – my father Roman, my mother Maronite – but by the time I came around there was very little of that left. Nevertheless, I somehow received an Episcopal baptism, a fact that has never ceased to baffle me, especially since my (long divorced) parents each claim it was the other one’s idea. My older brother recently explained that they went through a brief period of attending the local Episcopal church, so I guess the timing just worked out for me.
As a teenager, I was a fairly typical angry and disaffected youth, with a distaste for Christianity that had nothing to do with any kind of study and everything to do with the fact that I equated it more or less with the status quo. To me, Christianity was synonymous with a kind of narrow-minded, lily-white, repressed, suburban, judgmental American consumerism. This was partly because I hadn’t bothered to look deeper, but also, I think, because Christianity has become just that for a lot of people.
The irony is that I have always had a spiritual hunger and all through these lost teenage years I was exploring various ways to satisfy that hunger, without ever once looking into Christianity. Strange as it now seems, Christianity didn’t strike me as a spiritual path; it had always been presented to me more as another word for mainstream American culture, which, to my eyes, seemed empty. So I explored Buddhism, and Sufism, and found some nice things in both, but obviously not enough. I’m not ashamed of looking into these religions, but I regret the fact that I also dabbled in occult and esoteric areas that I should have left alone. But, that was then. I was searching for something, and I didn’t know what it was, or where to look.
At some point I opened a Bible. It was bound to happen sooner or later, if for no other reason than intellectual curiosity. I couldn’t make heads-or-tails of the Old Testament; I was numbed by the endless lists and sometimes baffled and repulsed by what seemed like a violent, tribal idea of God (I understand that the Fathers present a more spiritual way to read these texts, but I was not there yet). When I got to the Gospels, however, I was surprised. I started reading about the life of Jesus, and His teachings, and encountered Someone very unlike what I expected. And He didn’t resemble a TV preacher or a hypocritical politician or one of the scared, close-minded Christians I went to school with. Frankly, He didn’t resemble anyone. I was not yet a Christian, but I was fascinated, and transfixed.
My interest continued as I went off to college at a small liberal arts school in Vermont. I read voraciously, not just the Bible but many, many commentaries, books by theologians and religious philosophers, from Bonhoeffer to Kierkegaard to St. Augustine, and also books about “the historical Jesus.” This kind of study was essential to me: in the Gospels I was encountering something I had no framework for, and I was looking for help in understanding it. The books about the historical Jesus were eye-opening, and though I can no longer embrace all of their findings, the ability to set the Gospels in their historical context still helps my understanding of Jesus, even if now that understanding is enlivened and immeasurably deepened by faith.
There was no “aha!” moment. I didn’t have a “conversion experience.” Slowly, through study of the Gospels, through reading scholars and philosophers, and through prayer, I began to believe. I began not to read the Gospels as a narrative, but to read them as though the words of Christ were addressed to me, and the events being described central to my life. I began to believe in the Incarnation, and the Resurrection. I had tried to put Jesus in many different “boxes”: supreme mystic, social revolutionary, wise teacher, preacher of compassion. What I found was that any box I put Him in, He would utterly destroy. Finally there were no boxes left. He was too big to be contained, too great to define. All that was left was to fall to my knees and call Him God.
Even having done this, I had no idea where I fit into the wide world of Christendom. At first, I struggled even with the idea of calling myself a Christian. Frankly, I didn’t get along very well with most of them, and to this day, most of my friends are not Christians. I come from a secular, progressive, humanist background, and to some degree, that is still a part of my makeup. I felt a lot of shame when I looked at Christian history and many of the crimes and misdeeds perpetuated in the name of Jesus. Eventually, though, I realized I had to be a Christian or nothing at all. When it came to the crimes and misdeeds, I saw that they were by no means confined to those that called themselves Christians, and that to let those people who kill and oppress in Christ’s name own the term is not an unacceptable solution. The dominant powers of the world tend towards oppression whether they fly a religious flag or not; certainly the history of the 20th century demonstrates that militant atheism is capable of crimes that far surpass even the worst of what Christians have been able to come up with. It is truly a fallen world.
Also, it dawned on me that it is impossible for me to evade the baggage of Christian history because it is my own history, and all the things I see in it that disturb and repulse me are things that exist in myself. To pretend to be above it, to act as though I look down upon it from a height, would truly be a sin. After all, who killed Jesus? I think the answer should never be “them” and always be “us,” or “me.”
This still left wide open the question of whether there was a church that I could belong to. I didn’t feel attracted to any of them, not even the Episcopal Church of my baptism, which would have been convenient! Nevertheless, after I began to accept that I was a Christian, I started to long for some way to express that publicly, for some kind of community that would help me in the journey I was just beginning.
At this point I ended up in Chicago – the college I was going to sent all the students off during the winter-time to do internships in whatever field they were interested in. I was staying in the guest room of the mother of a fellow student. The city was frozen solid and I didn’t know anyone. I was a shy nineteen year-old with a lot going on inside of him. That’s when I picked up a book that was in the guest room: “Franny and Zooey,” by J.D. Salinger. In it, the heroine becomes obsessed with the Jesus Prayer, and it affects the way she sees the world in a profound manner. She becomes disillusioned with the pretentious world of academia and false sophistication, and enraptured by a vision of simple, deep, all-encompassing love. I was intrigued. What was this tradition of “Eastern Christianity” to which the Jesus Prayer belonged? It seemed like a Church with a theology I could immerse myself in: cosmic and mystical, yet deeply humane.
When I got back to school – this was about the year 2000 – I began studying Orthodoxy in depth: partially in books, and partially in online communities. One, I believe, was this one, where I posted an inquiry and received many helpful and compassionate replies. I also received an email from a woman who proved pivotal in my journey. A fellow convert about ten years my senior, she came from a similar background to me in terms of her interests and preoccupations (alternative music, literature, et cetera). Her letter was long and witty – profound in parts, hilarious in others. She encouraged me, warned me about various pitfalls, and in general seemed like a pretty ideal guide to this new, strange world: a fellow convert who had embraced the faith whole-heartedly without turning into a zealot. I needed an example that one could be a Christian without being a Biblical literalist who violently rejects the world and views all expressions of art and culture as potential hazards to their faith. And in her, I found that example, and found a friend. I will call her R.
At this time, I had a girlfriend who was studying abroad for several months in Nepal, due to her interest in Buddhism. At a certain point I began to develop a morbid fear that she would not make it back to the States. Now, in the interest of full disclosure, it’s not unusual for me to develop morbid fears such as this: I have obsessive-compulsive disorder, and those fears come with the territory. The point is, wherever these worries came from, they were, obviously, difficult to deal with. Having learned of the Jesus Prayer, I tried an experiment: replacing the obsessive rhythm of worry with the words of the Prayer. To a large extent, it worked, and soon the day came when my girlfriend was due to arrive back from Nepal. I was at the airport in Boston, standing at the bottom of an escalator, waiting for her to appear. Her flight was late. My worry increased. I distinctly remember standing there, waiting for the people from her flight to appear at the crest of the escalator. Suddenly, someone appeared. It wasn’t her. It was an Orthodox monk: the first time I had ever seen one, and still the only time. He was in black with the black hat, the long beard, and a pectoral cross. Perhaps a priest-monk? I’m not sure. In any case, my girlfriend arrived behind him. It was … unusual, I suppose. Later, she said that she was deeply nervous on the flight for some reason, but when this man came aboard at a stop-over, her worry vanished and was replaced with a feeling of peace and comfort.
I mention this experience not because I feel it “proves” anything, but because experiences like this seem to surround my relationship with Orthodoxy, and they make up part of the story.
Anyway, that relationship didn’t last. I entered another one. All this time, as I was discovering Orthodoxy and becoming a Christian, I want to make clear that I was emphatically NOT living like one. There’s no need to go into detail, but I was a young man with an addictive personality and an overactive libido. I was treating other people badly, and treating myself as though I were worth very little. I was not unaware of the dichotomy between the holiness I was beginning to aspire to, and the life I chose to lead. But I didn’t do much about it, besides continuing to fumble towards that holy truth while, paradoxically, living a life of recklessness and sin.
I dropped out of college – in part because I felt the temptations there were too great. Not yet certain about Orthodoxy, I went to the Abbey of Gethsemani, a Trappist monastery in Kentucky that is most famous for being the former home of Thomas Merton. I lived with the brothers for a month – incidentally, the month of Sep. 11, and I’ll be forever grateful to have been there during that terrible time – and tried to get my spiritual life in order. When my time there was done, I went to stay with R and her husband, who were living then in North Carolina. There I further explored Orthodoxy, and came to a firmer decision that it was where I belonged.
After going back home for a few months to connect with friends and family, I again went to stay with my Orthodox friends, who were by then firmly ensconced back in Memphis. The intention of my stay was clear: I was going to be chrismated. I attended church with them, and met with their wonderful priest. On R's recommendation and his personal assessment of my knowledge of the faith, there was to be no formal catechism, and a day was set for me to enter the Church.
I was still with the girlfriend mentioned above, the girl I ended up with after the relationship with the Buddhist ended. Our plan had been that, after her graduation that year, we would move to Chicago and start our lives together. That this plan was going to change became clear when, a couple of days before the date of my chrismation, she called to tell me that she had been involved with another man. In retrospect, my reaction was childish and extreme, but, truth be told, I pretty much collapsed inside. Intent on winning her back, unable to eat or sleep, I told R and the priest that I had to leave, to go back up to Vermont and work it out with this girl. I have since spent many years regretting my decision, skipping town mere days before I was to enter the Church. Considering the emotional breakdown and rough years that lay ahead, there was nothing I needed more than the Church to guide and protect me. Why, I wondered in retrospect, could I not at least have waited a couple of days?
Blame it on dark forces or just my own self-centered mindset, but I left everything behind and did not end up returning to Memphis. Instead, one thing led to another. I spent some time in New York City, poor, broken-hearted, a nervous wreck. I moved to Chicago, where this girl and I had intended to move together, still hoping we might work it out. In my heart, I continued to believe in the theology of the Orthodox faith, and occasionally, in Chicago, I would attend a Liturgy. I even kept, for a time, an Orthodox prayer rule! But I was far too wrapped up in my own passions, indulgences, and useless self-pity to take those necessary steps back towards the Church I had come so close to embracing.
I ended up back home in coastal California, in a rural area without an Orthodox Church within 100 miles. For five years I stayed there, falling ever farther into sexual promiscuity, drink, drugs, and general dilapidation. Then, I met the woman who was to become my wife. Of course, that changed many things. Not long after meeting, we married, and decided to move to Portland, Oregon, to pursue our respective ambitions. Once in Portland, now married and taking much better care of myself, I knew that the time was upon me to act on the signs I felt I had been given from God. I contacted the local Greek Orthodox cathedral and entered catechism classes. I started attending Divine Liturgy every Sunday, and sometimes Vespers. I started to read Orthodox books again with renewed dedication, and, of course, the Gospels. I renewed my prayer rule. And, I contacted the woman who had nearly become my god-mother.
Ten years had passed since I essentially skipped out on my chrismation. I felt a lot of shame for my actions and the selfish young man I had been. Nevertheless I worked up the nerve to ask her if she would still be willing to sponsor me. She responded with an enthusiastic “Yes!”, and when the day arrived she was in Portland with her husband and, now, their two beautiful children. And, with her, her family and my wife in attendance, I was accepted into the Orthodox Church on May 28th, finally completing a 10-year journey of multiple setbacks and false starts – and, more importantly, beginning another journey that will last me all of my life, and into eternity.