CONVERSIONS TO ORTHODOXY
The Lure of the Mystical Path
Alice Tallmadge, Correspondent
Originally published in The Oregonian, Sunday, April 9, 2000
From Ashland to Portland, the Orthodox tradition is drawing Oregonians to its ancient depths
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
EUGENE — The Saturday night buzz is revving outside the doors of St. Eugene Orthodox Church in the Whiteaker neighborhood. Motors race. Doors slam. Nearby taverns begin to fill with eager revelers. But inside the walls of the humble, dome-topped church, an otherworldly peace reigns. Pungent incense hangs in the air. Gold-flecked icons, lit by flickering tapers, line the dark red walls. Women, their long hair covered with scarves, stand on one side of the small nave, men on the other.
They take turns filling the room with plaintive, old-world chants. Other worshippers stand quietly, hands to their sides, heads bowed.
“This is how we worship, to stay concentrated in prayer,” said St. Eugene member Sarah Cowie.
“We believe that, during the service, God pours himself out. If you get quiet enough in your mind, you can feel, palpably, his presence.”
The 70 or so members of St. Eugene aren’t immigrants from Russia, Eastern Europe or Greece. They are Eugene-area residents, most of them converts from Protestant sects, who have found solace and sustenance in a tradition that dates back 2,000 years to the early Christian church. Cowie and other St. Eugene members are among the growing numbers of Oregonians who are converting to Orthodoxy.
For years, St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Portland, established in 1895, was one of few Orthodox churches in the state. In the past 15 years, churches or missions have sprung up in Albany, Ashland, Milwaukie, Oregon City, Eugene and in several Portland neighborhoods. According to the Orthodox Church of America, an umbrella organization for certain Orthodox jurisdictions, at least 150 new parishes in the United States have sprung up in the past 20 years. Nationally, they estimate there are now 2 million to 3 million Orthodox believers.
Faith trumps understanding in the ancient, mystical tradition, which is steeped in rituals such as a sung liturgy, reverence for icons, fasting, sacraments and daily dedication to the spiritual life.
Something more real
One of the tradition’s most powerful attractions to Westerners is its rejection of immediate gratification and living only for the self, said Cowie. She converted 14 years ago after spending years seeking a tradition that would satisfy a spiritual longing she herself could not describe. Orthodoxy offered something different, she said. Something bigger. Something more real.
“It’s very, very deep,” she said. “The people who are attracted to Orthodoxy are people… who are looking for something more, who see the shallowness of our materialistic society.”
Orthodoxy doesn’t ignore the mind and the intellect, Cowie said, but sees the intellect as being seated in the heart.
“There is a mystical presence that actually draws us on.”
A hunger for meaning
Youths seem to be drawn to the ancient tradition. When Cowie’s daughter was a teen-ager, Cowie gave her free rein to decide for herself which religious tradition spoke to her. Her daughter, now 21, is an Orthodox nun in a California monastery.
“Our children are staying with the church,” said Cowie, who teaches parenting classes at a Eugene nonprofit agency.
The Rev. Michael Boyle, a priest at St. Eugene, said that for some youths the church fills a void that entertainment and other social institutions do not.
“Younger people are hungry for authentic Christianity. They are dying inside for something that is real, authentic and that challenges them to have a spiritual life as a Christian,” he said. “Orthodoxy has not lost the mystery. It does not try to answer every question that comes up. It’s real. People feel God.”
The tradition’s emphasis on ritual, prayer and self-examination spoke to an unmet spiritual hunger Rebecca Jaquette and her husband had both felt for years. Like Cowie, Jaquette had experimented with different Christian approaches to worship before she found Orthodoxy. Brought up Presbyterian,
“I felt like I didn’t have any tradition,” Jacquette said. “My husband and I knew how to speak ‘Christian-ese,’ but inwardly we felt we were just going through the motions. We didn’t know what we were really doing with our lives.”
From the moment they began attending Orthodox services in Portland, something felt right, Jaquette said.
“And as we continued in it, we felt we were worshipping more fully, that we found a place where there was a rhythm to life that was really important.”
Now members of St. Eugene, the couple is happy to have rituals and traditions to pass on to their two children, ages 5 and 6 months.
“This is what they will know,” Jaquette said.
A split at the beginning
The Eastern and Western Christian traditions split apart in what is known as the Great Schism of 1054. The two branches took very different routes. Whereas the Roman Catholic tradition adhered to a strict hierarchy headed by the pope, the Orthodox Church stayed away from placing one individual at its head. Over the centuries, a host of Orthodox jurisdictions developed. Different ethnic groups, including Greeks, Serbians, Albanians and Russians, added their own customs to the traditional rituals. Still, at the core,
“we are all of the same faith,” Evangelatos said.
Michael Spezio, a UO graduate student and a Presbyterian minister, has studied Orthodoxy and has traveled to Mount Athos, a Greek peninsula populated only by monks living in centuries-old monasteries. Spezio said he has come to understand what Orthodoxy contributes to the broad spectrum of Christianity.
“I have an appreciation for the mystery that moves through the tradition,” he said. “They don’t seek to intellectualize every last thing. The seek to experience, but not to dissect that experience.
Incorporating the senses
Despite its focus on spirituality, Orthodoxy doesn’t reject the physical realm, said St. Eugene member Catherine Larson. During services the five senses are nourished and purified: candles for sight, incense for smell, bread and wine for taste, kissing of icons for touch, chanting for sound. Church members often fast, but they also join for feasts and communal meals.
“The beauty and theology of Orthodoxy seems more elemental, more practical,” she said. Unlike Catholicism, Orthodox priests who intend to serve parishes must be married before they are ordained.
St. Eugene, said the head priest, the Rev. David Lubliner, is named after a 4th-century Egyptian saint who is celebrated for his selfless hospitality and kindness.
“Emperor Constantine called him one of the three great lights of the world,” he said. The church, which also houses a small bookstore, plans to continue its patron saint’s hospitality. It will open a drop-in tea house and plans to help cook for the group Food Not Bombs, which prepares meals for the homeless several times a week.
Coincidentally, the church is situated at the site of another establishment that served wayward pilgrims on the path of life. The former Icky’s Teahouse welcomed social outcasts, runaway youth, substance abusers and anarchists, once even holding a benefit concert for Unabomber Ted Kaczynski.
Today the just-completed stucco church, which took church members two years and hundreds of hours of mostly volunteer labor to build, nuzzles up close to Whiteaker’s social diversity. To the south is an AA social club. To the north a dance studio thuds with flamenco initiates. Nearby is a row of artists’ studios, a Mission homeless shelter, local railroad yards and a notorious drug and skin market strip. St. Eugene will be a place of peace in the center of that swirl, Boyle said, both for its members and anyone on the street looking for a place of rest.
“I know that, through prayer, grace is sent, and that grace resides in the physical building itself,” he said.
“As people enter from the street, they sense it. They sense holiness, something different than anything they’ve sensed before. And that is part of our purpose, to bring down that grace from heaven.”