HEAVEN ON EARTH – ORTHODOXY
Orthodoxy on the Hawaiian Islands
Orthodox churches can be found in all corners of the globe—even in far-flung Hawaii. This tropical paradise in the Pacific Ocean consisting of eight large islands and many more small ones is named after its largest island. It has a population is over one million, 60 percent of whom are Christian, including Orthodox Christian. Rector of the St. Juvenaly Orthodox Mission, Fr. John Schroedel, tells us about Orthodox life on the U.S.’s fiftieth state.
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—Fr. John, please tell us about the history of Orthodox Christianity on the Hawaiian islands.
—Right now we have three churches and three priests. This one, the St. Juvenaly Mission on the big island of Hawaii, has only mission status. I have been here since December 4, 2007—not very long. This mission was formally started in 2004. There was a priest here, Fr. Sergius, who served for 18 months. After he left, there was no priest here for another 18 months, but the core community held on very stubbornly and kept meeting, having reader’s services and trying to obtain a priest. God bless them for their faith! When I came I could really feel that faith. They were hungry for Orthodoxy. Many of them had never regularly attended an Orthodox church before, so they wanted to gain experience and deepen their knowledge of Orthodoxy. As a young priest it is wonderful to be appreciated—just because you are a priest. They were eager to make up for their lack of experience, and worked hard to learn more. This was a great joy for me.
The other two Orthodox churches are located in Honolulu. One of them, a large Greek church dedicated to Sts. Constantine and Helen, is known as the Cathedral church of the Pacific. It is the oldest continuing church in the islands. There has been a Russian community here for a long time which has waxed and waned. The Greek parish community has been here since the 1950’s, and their current church building was consecrated in 1988. The current priest of that church, Fr. John Kuehnle, has been there for less than a Continue reading “Orthodoxy on the Hawaiian Islands”
AMERICA OF MY HEART
“NATIVE AMERICANS MAY BECOME
THE LARGEST ETHNIC GROUP IN THE AMERICAN ORTHODOX CHURCH.”
An interview with His Beatitude Jonah, Archbishop of Washington,
Metropolitan of All America and Canada
In early December of 2009, His Beatitude, Metropolitan Jonah of All America and Canada (Orthodox Church of America) visited Russia to celebrate the fifteenth anniversary of the OCA’s representation in Moscow. Correspondent Miguel Palacio took the opportunity to talk with Metropolitan Jonah about the OCA’s presence in Latin America.
– Your Beatitude, in which Latin America countries is the Orthodox Church in America represented?
– Our jurisdiction extends to Mexico. We used to have parishes in Argentina, Brazil, Peru, and Venezuela as well, but one of them joined the Russian Church Abroad, while others simply closed.
Several communities in Latin America want to join the American Orthodox Church. We would be happy to receive these faithful people, but there would be no one to take care of them because we have very few clergymen who speak Spanish or Portuguese.
One priest, who I hope will soon become a bishop, began a mission in Ecuador, in the city of Guayaquil, where there is a large Palestinian colony. Unfortunately, his good initiative has fizzled out. I have heard that many Palestinians also live in Central American countries, one of which is El Salvador. It is curious, but they do not go to the Antiochian parishes, and are requesting to be received under our omophorion.
The Constantinople and Antiochian Patriarchates prefer to pastor the Greek and Arab diasporas. We do not understand this. The Church should give pastoral care first of all to its local spiritual children. This is our principle in the Orthodox Church in America.
– When was the Mexican exarchate organized?
– The Mexican exarchate has existed since the 1970’s. At that time, the Bishop of the Mexican national Old Catholic Church, Jose (Cortez-y-Olmos), strengthened contact with our Church and became Orthodox, together with his entire community. Thanks to his labors, hundreds of Mexicans have become immersed in the Orthodox Faith.
Not long ago, five thousand Native Americans from twenty-three areas in the state of Veracruz were baptized into Orthodoxy. However, there is only one priest to serve that entire mass of people. In general, the Mexican exarchate has very few clergymen. They are all Mexican, including the ruling hierarch, Bishop Alejo (Pacheco-Vera).
– Have you ever been to Latin America?
– I have only visited Mexico. Now I am getting ready to visit Guatemala. A friend of mine lives there — Abbess Ines (Ayau Garcia), the superior of the Holy Trinity Convent, which is under the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Patriarchate.
In Guatemala, a group of thousands of people who would like to become Orthodox have attracted my attention. Most of them are Mayan. If we take these Guatemalans in, as well as other members of the native Latin American population, then Native Americans may become the largest ethnic group in the American Orthodox Church. I, personally, would be very happy about that.
– I see that you sympathize with the original inhabitants of the American continent…
– I have the warmest feelings for Native Americans. I studied anthropology in the university, and was drawn to the Mayan and Aztec cultures. These were enormous, amazing civilizations.
I like Latin America as a whole — its art, music, literature, and cuisine. Latin Americans love life; they are open and hospitable people. I grew up in California — one of the most Hispanic states in the U.S. I was able to learn some Spanish from my Mexican friends (although I speak Spanish poorly). The priest who united me to the Orthodox Church was a Mexican. His name was Fr. Ramon Merlos.
– What does missionary work amongst Native Americans in the U.S. have in common with that amongst those of Latin America?
– To be honest, I do not yet know… Our Church has missionary experience in Alaska, where one remarkable priest serves — Archpriest Michael Oleksa, an anthropologist. He is a Carpatho-Russian; his wife comes from the indigenous Yupiks. Fr. Michael wants to conduct a conference of Orthodox Native Americans of America. This would be an extremely interesting event.
When Fr. Michael was rector of the seminary, he invited the Guatemalan community that was thirsting for Orthodoxy to send two members to receive a theological education. The idea was, of course, a good one. But people who are accustomed to a tropical climate are not likely to endure the freezing temperatures of Alaska.
– Are there Latin Americans amongst your parishioners in the U.S.?
– Of course there are. In California, thirty-five percent of the population is Latin American, and the percentage is even larger in Texas. There are Latinos both amongst the flock and the clergy in our Church. Studying in St. Tikhon Seminary is a Mexican with Native Americans roots, named Abraham. He has the obedience of sub-deacon. One sub-deacon in San Francisco is Colombian. At the end of November, I blessed a new convent dedicated to the Nativity of Christ in Dallas, the superior of which is Brazilian.
– What, do you suppose, attracts Latin Americans to Orthodoxy?
– Latinos love our Liturgy and icons; they are captivated by the deep veneration of the Mother of God within the Orthodox Church.
I have to say that the Catholic Church is quickly losing its influence in Latin America, and the reason for this is its close association with the upper social classes. A significant portion of the poorer classes, which make up the majority of the region, have become disillusioned with the Catholic pastors, and have aligned themselves with protestants, Mormons, and other sectarians.
Metropolitan Andres (Giron), the head of the St. Basil the Great Order of White Clergy in Guatemala, used to be a Catholic priest. He saw that his Church leaders were oriented towards the wealthy; in the 1990’s he left the Catholic Church, because he wanted to work for the people. Not long ago, Fr. Andres said to me, “I am old and ailing. Please take my people into your Church for the sake of their salvation.” It would be hard to call his community Orthodox, but it is gradually coming to know Orthodox teachings, and partaking of the traditions of the Orthodox Church. Besides those in Guatemala, Bishop Andres has opened parishes in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other U.S. cities where his countrymen have settled.
– Are you not afraid of some conflict with the Catholic Church? After all, Latin America is still considered the “largest diocese of the Vatican.”
– There will not be any conflict. The Catholic Church relates to Orthodoxy with loyalty. Furthermore, I see no little potential for collaboration with the Catholic Church, first of all in the struggle against sectarianism.
Interview by Miguel Palacio
21 / 12 / 2009
ST Like the Evangelist Orthodox Church
in Palos Hills, Illinois, USA
We are located at:
9300 W. 107th street
Palos Hills, IL 60465
Our mailing address is:
10700 South Kean Avenue
Palos Hills, IL 60465
Office Phone Number: (708) 974-1166
Rectory Phone Number: 810-845-9015
Father Jannakos’s Email: email@example.com
WASHINGTON OF MY HEART
ROMAN CATHOLICS MET ORTHODOXY
USA OF MY HEART
Walla Walla, Washington, USA
by Philip Silouan Thompson
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
Fr. Phil Thompson is the author of the Silouan blog, an excellent site for information. He is also a well known iconographer in North American Orthodoxy, and this, his story, was taken from his own website http://silouanthompson.net
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Awe came upon every soul, because many wonders and signs were being done by the apostles. All who believed were together and had all things in common… Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with gladness and simplicity of heart, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:42-47)
When I became a Christian in 1980, I was living with a Roman Catholic family and attending a Jesuit high school.
I attended Mass and religion classes, but on the whole I was underwhelmed by Christianity as it was presented.
I was growing more and more hungry for God, but the religion I saw seemed more irrelevant and sentimental than genuine or powerful.
So when I came to faith in Christ, I didn’t join any church at all.
I’d seen church.
It was over a year later that I was invited to a friend’s Evangelical church, and began attending regularly. Unlike the bored crowds I’d seen at Mass, these Pentecostals knew how to celebrate! I already knew how to enjoy a concert – dance to the music, wave your arms in the air, sing along, get lost in the good feeling – so I already knew how to join in a Pentecostal worship service. I loved it; here was a community characterized by enthusiasm and love for Christ, and motivated by concern for the souls of the world.
I worked with evangelistic teams in jails and street ministry, and later I moved to Washington State with the goal of training for overseas missionary work. That goal was never fulfilled, but I continued to be involved in ministry, visiting nursing homes, preaching and volunteering at the local rescue mission, and later teaching Sunday school and serving on the worship team. When I had the opportunity to attend Bible school, it seemed a natural next step.
In school we were encouraged to search the Scriptures and question everything until we found it in the Bible. Some of what I was taught I rejected; most I accepted. Every Protestant has to judge for himself what he will believe. If you’d asked, I’d have said my acceptance or rejection of any doctrine or practice was always based on the text of Scripture. What I would have meant was: based on the norms of evangelical interpretation of Scripture. After all, nobody can read without interpreting. The text of Scripture doesn’t interpret itself without our involvement. Otherwise no one would ever disagree on the meaning of
“Eat My body, drink My blood”
“you must be born again.”
So I rejected notions like the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and baptism as a sacrament — and for that matter the very idea of sacraments. I was taught that since the New Testament doesn’t specify the office of the episcopate as separate from the presbytery, then there’s no warrant for any kind of authority structure besides a board of elders or pastors. (The earliest Christians were all democratic, of course.)
While studying the history of Christianity, we examined the history recounted in the book of Acts and then spent a very brief time reading excerpts from the “Early Fathers” — the Christian writers from the first, second and third centuries. The brief passages we read were selected and presented without context, to convince us that the worship and beliefs of the earliest Christians were just like ours. After our quick visit with the early Fathers we fast-forwarded over the “dark ages” so as to concentrate on the Protestant Reformation.
I couldn’t have told you in detail what those early Fathers taught, but I could pin them down by name and century. The “To The Reader” preface in the 1611 King James Bible was full of quotes labeled “Irenaeus”, “Tertullian”, “Cyril of Jerusalem” – and now I had a little historical data to attach to each of those names. Sadly, though, we never spent much time reading those Fathers’ writings in context. What did stick with me from those summaries of the Fathers was the emphasis on being in Christ. The idea was planted in me that, if Christ united creation to Himself in His Incarnation, then our life’s goal must be to participate in His Life, like branches in the Vine, partaking of the divine nature, being transformed by the renewing of our minds. I was sure that Christ must be able not only to save us from hell (sin’s consequence) but actually to save us from sin.
In Evangelical Protestantism there was certainly room for that belief — but there was no concrete “therefore do this” to work out that kind of a vision of salvation. Instead, we taught people to pray a prayer, “get saved”, and then go get other sinners saved.
Over time I saw churches buy into one program after another, designed to mobilize believers to share their faith, and to “disciple” the people who responded. But while I participated in many evangelistic events over the years — rallies, revivals, concerts, street evangelism — and saw a lot of genuine desire to bring people to Christ, I became dissatisfied with the proportionately small amount of time and effort that went into what was called “follow-up.” Even the name “follow-up” reveals the underlying assumption that the primary task has been accomplished when a nonbeliever makes a confession of faith in Christ.
All that’s left (all!) is the lifetime task of uniting him to the people of God, teaching him who his Savior is, and instilling in him a whole new lifestyle. We believed the Great Commission was addressed to us, but all our effort seemed to be going into helping people start their Christian walk; we were much less successful in teaching Christians concrete, realistic ways to live out a life that increases in grace, wisdom, and holiness. I rarely ever heard any practical, useful teaching on just how to make war on the desires of the flesh so as not to be dragged away by lustful greed and crass American consumerism. Too often, new Christians were told little more than to “read your Bible and pray.” Hardly what Christ meant by “Go make disciples”!
When emphasis was given to accountability or concrete disciplines that might help a Christian persevere to the end and so be saved, there were often complaints that we were majoring on minors, getting distracted from evangelism, engaging in manipulation — and above all, that we were doing something different from standard Pentecostal practice.
Particularly frustrating was the fact that we had to invent or try out discipleship programs, since our independent-minded Protestant history had not provided us with any kind of historical disciplines. How, exactly, do we teach our new believers even basic disciplines like prayer, Bible reading, almsgiving, fasting, accountability or self-denial? What concrete, specific steps have been proven over time to develop these very basic disciplines? We hadn’t received anything like that from the early Church; outside of the Scriptures themselves, we lived as though nothing of the early Christian life had survived from those long-ago saints until today.
Our ideas of how to accomplish discipleship were all only decades old, because we really had no history. We zealously defended the faith of our fathers as we understood it, but our vision of “normal Christianity” really stretched back only about a hundred years.
In the mid 1990’s our church started a Vietnamese mission congregation. When they invited me to be their pastor, I took very seriously the responsibility to present the word of God as it is, not merely my beliefs about it; and I knew that God’s people need to worship Him acceptably. Beginning to realize the lack of historical depth or context to my Christianity, I began reading more widely, looking for wisdom and inspiration in the writings of the people who were the ancestors of our Pentecostal tradition: the great American and Welsh revivalists, the Salvation Army, the Keswick “deeper life” writers, the Pietists, the Puritans.
I visited friends’ churches — Presbyterian, Reformed, Episcopal, and others. Those visits impressed me with how many very different things are called “worship”. This is when I began the study that I had no idea would eventually lead me to Orthodoxy — a study to answer the question: What exactly is worship? In the Reformation, the altar was moved from the center of attention and the pulpit took first place, reflecting a fundamental shift in the definition of worship – from personal participation in Christ, to hearing a preached sermon. And in our modern Pentecostal tradition, the pulpit could be dispensed with entirely, as the guitars and drums took center stage and music became the defining feature of what we called worship.
Amid all those changes of focus and shifting meanings of the word “worship”, I had to wonder how much of what we do in church today is just a reflection of our transient culture? How much is authentic? What is common to the church’s experience of worship through history? I didn’t want to invest time and prayer into something that would be meaningless in a generation, or irrelevant outside my cultural context.
One week, in a home study group, as we were reading through Acts, I taught on Acts 2:42-47. That passage affected me deeply — the church was just being the church and the Lord was adding to their numbers those who were being saved. People were encountering Christian fellowship and being drawn into it — and in that environment they were meeting Christ. Communal worship, prayer, and mutual submission were the methods they used to make disciples. And when they expanded outside Judea, they continued to make disciples, with this same culturally-alien, ethnic Jewish variety of synagogue liturgy. (This was not a user-friendly, seeker-sensitive church!)
As we studied the end of Acts chapter 2, I grew increasingly frustrated. I knew this kind of congregational life and devotion must be key to establishing authentic Christian fellowship — but the New Testament just does not give a divine blueprint for building the Church! Paul and Peter, James and Jude assume the Church is already established and needs only their specific corrections. I could see that we modern folks were missing the mark; I decided I had to go back and re-read the documents of the early church. I still remembered the names of those early Christian Fathers of the first and second century — surely in their writings I’d find insights I could apply to our congregation. Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple.
Like most Protestants I knew, I had been taught that the early Church was just like us …but then after the first few centuries, the church began to go all weird and liturgical and hierarchical. And then when Constantine legalized Christianity, that was the last nail in the coffin: The church became virtually extinct for the next 1200 years, till the Protestant Reformation. I figured that if my reading stayed way back in the Church’s first century or two, before the time serious corruption could set in, I should be able to read the comments of men who had been taught by the Apostles, who wrote to churches the Apostles had pastored.
They should shed some light on how our democratic, charismatic, nonsacramental congregation could live out the kind of life described in the book of Acts.
To put it mildly, these writers shocked me. After only a little reading — Ignatius, Justin Martyr, and the Didache, for starters — it was evident that the early church, even in the late first century, practiced liturgical worship. To them this was the normal Christian life. I was unprepared for these second- and first-century writers to be discussing bishops and liturgy, and calling the “Eucharist” the body of Christ.
They didn’t just sit in a circle in their bluejeans and talk about Jesus; they practiced a liturgy they’d inherited from the synagogue, and they celebrated Communion – the Eucharist – gathered around a bishop and presbyters and deacons. By 150AD, Justin Martyr could describe the outline of the liturgy in order; and by the early 200’s Hippolytus wrote out the texts of the prayers everyone used.
And the rest of the Christians around them thought this was nothing out of the ordinary!
What these “early Christian Fathers” wrote was not refuted or destroyed, but rather preserved, copied, and distributed to the churches during the lifetime of the Apostles. Heretical writings were denounced and destroyed, but these writings were considered normal by Christians in John’s or Paul’s churches.
What did these early Christian Fathers have to say? Within a decade of John’s death, his disciple Ignatius of Antioch wrote to the Church of Philadelphia:
If any man follows him that makes a schism in the Church, he shall not inherit the kingdom of God… Be eager, therefore, to keep one Eucharist. For there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup for union with His blood; one sanctuary; as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow servants. So that, whatever you do, you do it in according to the will of God.
And a few years later, the Christian apologist Justin (later known as Justin Martyr) wrote regarding Christian worship:
And this food is called among us Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto new birth, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined. For not as common bread and common drink do we receive these; but… we been taught that the food which is blessed by the prayer of His word, and from which our blood and flesh by transmutation are nourished, is the flesh and blood of that Jesus who was made flesh.
In fact, without exception, all the first- and second-century writers were starting to sound like they held an awfully “catholic” view of baptism, communion, and the church. Yet no one, even n the Protestant world, ever questioned the historicity of these ancient documents.
I read on from the earliest Fathers into the third and fourth centuries — Irenaeus, Athanasius, Basil. Where was the break I was expecting? Where was the change from congregational democracy and unstructured charismatic worship, to liturgical, hierarchical religion? That change was nowhere to be found; instead, it looked more like the writers of the first and fourth centuries were all on the same page, all in the same Church.
Of course there were variations of opinion, but all these ancient writers, from across the civilized world, shared the beliefs of those first-century teachers who’d written with the words of the Apostles still ringing in their ears.
The writers after Constantine didn’t differ materially from those before; instead there was a real sense of harmony among all the ancient writers I read; and an increasing dissonance as I compared their ancient beliefs to what I was accustomed to preaching.
Virtually all my concepts of worship and church government were turning out to be modern innovations. Before 1500, who had ever heard of democratic church government? Symbolic crackers and grape juice? An invisible church independent of the original apostles? Baptism that doesn’t really do anything? Thousands of years and thousands of miles removed from the apostles who wrote Scripture, with Greek a foreign language at best, by the dim light of archaeology, speculation, and changing winds of scholarship, I was in no position to judge the interpretations and teachings of these earliest Christians, who had learned their doctrine directly from the apostles. I had to start letting them judge me.
I experimented with adding liturgical elements in our services; but the results were unsatisfying to say the least. The Vietnamese Christians knew how they were used to doing church, and while they’d humor me in my liturgical notions, they were not about to significantly change their practices at this late date. As I realized the centrality of the Eucharist in early Christianity, we emphasized Communion more, and I found myself preaching against doctrines I had taught not too many months before — and in increasing disagreement with the other teachers in the congregation.
I had always believed my job as a mission pastor was to work myself out of a job. I had already been working toward turning the Vietnamese mission over to Vietnamese leaders. So I was glad to hand over most of the task of preaching to the Vietnamese leaders. I didn’t have much choice; preaching had become terribly difficult. My “Thus Saith The Lord” had gone away, and I felt like a fraud. The doctrines I’d taught were internally consistent — but not faithful to what the earliest Christians believed.
It was especially disturbing, in attempting to preach the Gospel as the early Christians did, that the early Christians didn’t seem to believe that a “decision for Christ” was the same thing as “salvation.” They all taught that salvation was a lifelong process, not a transaction or a legal fiction, and “he who perseveres to the end will be saved.” I had long believed I had a message that would save the world; now after seeing the sadly temporary results of much of evangelical preaching and discipleship, I couldn’t preach a simplistic “Get saved” gospel any more.
What was I supposed to invite people into? Ancient Christianity was all about the relationship of the member of the Church to Christ and His body; not about anybody’s “personal Savior.” Outsiders were invited to join the people of God, get aboard the ark, become a part of the body — not to individually “accept Christ” but to come and be accepted, healed, and sanctified in the community of believers.
Was there a place in the Assemblies of God for this kind of grace community to be found — or created? Could our congregation become a community I could invite someone to be immersed in and find the healing they need? I doubted it. Our modern Christianity was starting to look like something consisting primarily of words and ideas and unreal things that happen in a person’s head: Intellectual things like those derived from Bible study and sermon listening, or emotional things like born again experiences and charismatic events. Wasn’t there anything real, effectual, and tangible? Were justification, sanctification, and participation in the divine nature just concepts or “spiritual realities” unrelated to life as we live it, here and now? Nobody seemed to have an answer that they hadn’t just invented, or reconstructed out of Scriptural proof-texts pulled together in an attempt to guess what the apostles had meant. Unfortunately, the apostles were long dead and all we evangelicals had to work with was their letters.
About this time, I ran across a reference to “The Carpenter’s Company”, a Foursquare congregation that had converted en masse and become — get this — Eastern Orthodox. How bizarre! Aren’t the Orthodox just ethnic Catholics? What could possibly be attractive about that? I’d seen Catholicism, gone to Catholic school, lived with Catholic families… they may have started out with the Fathers, and kept some of the trappings of the original worship of the early Church, but their ever-evolving doctrines, military-style chain of command, and weird sentimental devotions didn’t look anything like the community Ignatius or Basil wrote about. Could these Foursquare folks have bought into a form of Catholicism? Following up on this incomprehensible conversion story provided a welcome distraction.
After reading a bit about Orthodoxy, I discovered that Orthodoxy and Catholicism are vastly different … and that these Orthodox people were way ahead of me! They had not only already thought of the ancient ideas I was trying on for size — they’d been working them out in detail, with all their implications, for a very long time. Suddenly my thinking didn’t seem so very “out there” at all; and evidently there were plenty of other Evangelicals coming to the same conclusions that Foursquare congregation did — and converting to Orthodoxy. As it turns out, it’s not uncommon lately for entire congregations to join the Orthodox Church. Congregations convert from a variety of backgrounds: Foursquare, Episcopal, Vineyard, and others.
I even read about the “Evangelical Orthodox”, an entire Protestant denomination that joined the Orthodox Church in 1987.
These converts claimed they were finding in Orthodoxy a community devoted to the disciplines and worship of ancient Christianity — not by restoring or reinventing it, but by receiving it as it had been practiced since the days of Peter and Paul. (Quite a claim, if they could back it up!) As it turned out, outside of the Western Roman Empire, there were no “dark ages”, but an unbroken chain of literate, articulate theologians who never forgot their roots.
As I read the Orthodox writers of the fifth, eighth, or twelfth centuries, I thought that they might be right — this was the same stream I’d been wading in while reading the early Fathers.
Discovering twentieth-century Orthodoxy was not entirely welcome. For all its warts I liked my denomination — there are some good men and women there, who sincerely love the Lord — and I loved the people I went to church with. I didn’t want to leave the church family I’d been part of for most of my Christian life. I made up my mind to incorporate the good parts of Orthodox spirituality into my life and stay what and where I was. Meanwhile, my curiosity got the best of me, I looked up an Orthodox church near me in Yakima, and took a Sunday off to go visit.
What can I say about Orthodox worship? It was reverent, intimate, repentant… alive with faith, strange yet oddly familiar. The liturgy had elements I recognized from the Catholic Mass and from popular “chant” CD’s, and it consisted mostly of praying a lot of Scripture. In fact they read and prayed more complete chapters of the Bible in a single service than I’d ever heard before in a church service. But what really struck me was how Jewish it was. The words of the prayers, the melodies the cantor used while chanting, the menorah up front — so many things reminded me of a synagogue service. (I already knew that Christian liturgy was adapted from first-century Jewish synagogue liturgy, but I hadn’t thought it would still be that way.) They hadn’t stopped offering prayers with incense; “Bow down” wasn’t a song lyric but a practical physical act; the women still wore head coverings; they still celebrated the body and blood of Christ — it seemed like they were out to practice all the verses I’d never highlighted in my Bible. This was very much not a modern American invention! I was hooked, and returned to visit Orthodox worship services again and again over the following months.
By contrast with the charismatic services I led every week, the Orthodox liturgies I attended were such a relief! There was no pressure to make every week fresh, unique and exciting. There’s not a lot of performance pressure on the cantor or clergy, because the whole church is the worship team. Personalities don’t affect the worship, and the prayers don’t depend on anyone’s subjective eloquence or how their week has gone. In the set form of the Liturgy was also, paradoxically, a sense of freedom I’d not experienced before: Because there are boundaries and the worshipers know what to expect, they are free to concentrate wholly on their common prayers. There’s no wondering what new thing the worship leader will ask us to do this week!
More important to me than the worship services was the fact that among Orthodox Christians, I’d found people who still practiced the same worship and disciplines described by Justin Martyr or Irenaeus or Hippolytus in the first or second century. They didn’t read a lot of Max Lucado or Dr. Dobson; instead they spent most of their time putting the earliest Christian writers’ advice into action. And I was vastly relieved to find out that they didn’t believe in purgatory, Mary as “co-redeemer”, indulgences, or infallible popes!
In mid 1998 I was introduced to an Orthodox church-planting team that had moved up from California to start an Orthodox community in Walla Walla. (These people were from the church that started out as the San Jose Vineyard and in the early 90’s wound up becoming St Stephen Orthodox Church.) They were doing all the things I promised myself I’d do if I ever was involved in starting another church. At the Vietnamese mission, we had started having services, and a church slowly coalesced and filled in the framework — but too many relationships were centered on the leaders.
Before you start having services, you need to already be a church!
There’s got to be a network of relationships and a common worship experience, a community, an environment where outsiders can come and encounter authentic fellowship and community. That’s what these church planters were doing. I began attending inquirers’ meetings in Walla Walla.
At the end of the year I found that I couldn’t remain in both worlds; I had to make a decision. As G.K. Chesterton wrote,
“I had heard that I was in the wrong place, and my soul sang for joy.”
With mixed emotions, I resigned from ministry and membership in Calvary Assembly of God. It was painful to leave behind friends and family in Christ; but it was also a relief to at last be free to wholeheartedly participate in the historic faith and worship I’d been dabbling in for the previous two years. I moved to Walla Walla to join in the life of the Orthodox community there, and on August 14, 1999 I was received into the Orthodox Church.
When a person enters the Church, they often are given the name of some hero of the faith who has finished the race triumphantly. I’ve always been inordinately proud of my knowledge, so it’s appropriate that for a patron saint I felt moved to choose Silouan of Mt Athos. St Silouan, a simple monk and all but illiterate, was consulted by pilgrims who sought out his wisdom and teaching on humility, obedience, and love. His life challenged me so much that I specifically wanted him praying for me today.
So I became Orthodox. And lived happily ever after? Well. The jury’s still out on that. A few years isn’t long enough to make a serious dent in a lifetime’s immersion in Western thought and independent self-inventing religion. I do know that, for the first time in my life, I’ve experienced long-term consistency in prayer, and personal accountability on a deeper level than I’ve ever known.
And, incidentally, far from relaxing carefree in a new level of freedom from sin, I’ve become much more conscious of the rebellion, selfishness, and pride that underlie so much of my way of living and thinking. But (our culture’s pop psychology to the contrary) guilt is not a burden to be rolled away and ignored; guilt means we’ve sinned and have the opportunity to repent. Compunction is good news! The practical how-to of repentance and humility is the place where Orthodoxy begins to show up as something different from every religion I know.
It’s after having been exposed to Orthodox preaching and teaching for a little while that I’ve begin to realize that in my life I have heard (and preached!) far more sermons on what the text of Scripture meant, than on how, practically and concretely, to live a life that leads to experiencing salvation from sin here and now. It’s much more common in many churches to hear exposition on the Sermon on the Mount than to hear usable, practical counsel from that Sermon on how to live, now, in the Kingdom. I can’t count how many vague sermons I’ve heard on “living in the Spirit” which never included a shred of practical instruction on what to do. In two thousand years the Orthodox have had time to prove what works for training the spiritual athlete to run the race to win.
Asceticism for me has quit being a word to describe crazed masochists, and has become part of my personal vocabulary. In Greek, askesis refers to athletic disciplines — and that’s a very apt metaphor for a Christian life that denies our nation’s cult of immediate gratification and materialism. Instead of seeing fasting as a heroic way to impress God when I want something from Him, fasting has become a regular part of the normal Christian life.
After all, Christ did say
“They shall fast”
“When you fast”
so self-denial is meant to be common to all Christians. When disciplines are received and obeyed they can lead to humility. Otherwise it’s just an exercise in self-will, where we independently decide what cross to carry, and we just feed our pride. It’s a challenge for me to submit to the wisdom of two millennia of Christians who Know What Works, instead of developing my own personal rule of prayer or devotion.
All that discipline, submission, and obedience is not the result of any desire to measure up to a standard that will make me acceptable to God. The fact is, we don’t need to measure up at all. God loves us as we are. Period. A friend of mine wrote in a recent letter:
Do we love Him? Fine, then: True Love doesn’t ask “what I need to do and how much I need to measure up.” True love simply does as much as it can, the max, and prays for the ability to do yet more. (“More Love to Thee, O Christ, More love to Thee!”)
What has surprised me in speaking with my Evangelical friends has been that often the Orthodox emphasis on active faith — obedience — comes across either as an attempt to earn God’s favor through works, or as “something extra”, something above and beyond what is needed for salvation. And that’s the biggest difference between the gospel I used to preach and the one I’m trying to live today. I’m not interested in identifying the minimum that’s “needed for salvation.” Given an infinite goal – transforming union with God – and given the foolishness, pride, and sin that still characterize me, I’m motivated to work out my salvation with fear and trembling.
And what ever happened to that vision of an Acts 2:42 church?
It might be surprising when you look at the surface of incense and icons and ancient melodies, but the kind of community described in Acts is happening here. The Lord is adding continually those who are being saved.
People encounter members of our community socially, get exposed to our way of life and of relating to one another (humility, mutual submission, prayer) and they are drawn by God to join us. Some of us are former Evangelicals, pastors, elders, what-have-you. But a number of our inquirers and catechumens are post-Christians who got burned out on church a long time ago, or normal people who have little church background at all.
Many of them have never before seen an atmosphere where absolutes are proclaimed, yet nobody points a finger — instead, we confess that we’re a bunch of hypocrites and sinners and we pray constantly for mercy and the grace of repentance.
I lean toward this vision not of evangelism but of community even more strongly as I’m painfully aware that I’m far from the godly example I’d like an unbeliever or non-Orthodox inquirer to encounter. No message is more credible than the messenger. I have a little credibility with the few people who know me well; they may or may not trust me when I tell them about the claims of Christ. But when they encounter a healthy community of faith, they see proof that Christ is among us.
Maybe it’s fitting that I started this piece speaking of my own individual experience but ended up talking about the Church. The promises and commands of Christ and the apostles are almost always in the plural. And while we can sin as individuals, we will be saved as members of Christ or not at all.
Fr. Philip Silouan Thompson
“We, unwise and with the meagerness of our intelligence, with God’s help have written this as a reminder to myself and to others of similar mind… If there is anything found here not pleasing to God and not helpful to souls because of my foolishness and ignorance, let it be not so, but may the will of God perfect it and make it well-pleasing. I ask pardon or beg that, if anyone should find anything else more practical and useful, then let him do it and we shall be glad and rewarded. If anyone should find from these writings some help, let him pray for me a sinner that I may obtain mercy before God.” — St. Nil Sorsky
ORTHODOXY IS LOVE
Orthodox Reformed Bridge
USA OF MY HEART
ALASKA OF MY HEART
JAPAN OF MY HEART
Orthodox Monk Adrian, USA:
The Himalayan Ascent To Christ
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
When we come to know God as Person, we begin to see His hand at work not only in the circumstances of our daily lives, but also in the events of our past which have led us to the present moment. We see how from partial truths He has led us to the fullness of Truth, and how He continues to lead us into a more profound realization of that Truth. As Fr. Seraphim Rose wrote, when we come to Christ
“no real truth we have ever known will ever be lost.”
Surrounded by five of the highest peaks in the Himalayas, I was standing at 14,000 feet gazing at the Annapurna mountains as the sun rose. My trek in Nepal had begun a few weeks previously and this was its culmination. As I stood staring at the pristine beauty soaring above me, a thought entered my mind and refused to budge:
“What’s the point?”
My ego immediately retorted to this random thought, “What’s the point! What do you mean, ‘What’s the point?’ The point is you hiked all this distance to see these mountains, now enjoy it!” Still the thought plagued my mind. Yes, it was one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen, and I was joyful at the moment, but where would those feelings be tomorrow when I was no longer so greatly inspired? The happiness of this world could never bring me satisfaction. It should have been apparent throughout my life, but it took my climbing to the top of the world for me to finally accept it. And that was my first step toward Christ and Orthodoxy.
Until that point my entire adult life had been a secular one devoted to satisfying sundry passions. I had finished University at the age of 21 with plans of going into business while at the same time pursuing a career in art. Within a year I seemed well on the way to reaching my goal. I was then living in London, employed by IBM. My position was secure and a promotion was imminent. My private life was similar to that of many of my generation: casual relationships, pursuit of comfort, and constant diversions to preserve myself from any self-reflection.
At about the same time my older sister became an Orthodox nun in Alaska. Whether it’s a coincidence or not I’m not sure, but from that time on my passion for worldly pursuits began to wane. Surveying my co-workers, no one seemed to be truly happy or content. That elusive quality of satisfaction was never present but always tantalizingly just around the corner. Travelling, sports, drinking with the “lads” all became more and more mundane. Every Monday the same question: “How was your weekend?” Every Friday again: “Any plans this weekend?” London became greyer and greyer and the steady drizzle never managed to wash away the grime.
Instead of looking deeper into the causes of my boredom, I placed the blame firmly on the shoulders of corporate culture. I assumed that my disdain for the world was due to the pursuit of monetary gain. So I quit IBM, packed my bags and returned to America. Cherishing my disdain for prosperity and social acceptance, I began my descent into Bohemia. Oddly enough, I failed to notice that the same rules that govern acceptability in corporate life were applicable to the alternative scene. Substitute a leather jacket for a suit, a tatoo for a rolex, and a pierced eyebrow for cufflink and you still have the same man.
I began the pursuit of a Masters degree in art and found a job at the Museum of Modern Art. My artwork consisted of large custom-made canvases covered in thick layers of tar. Tar had not been used as an artistic medium before, so my work was instantly popular. I strove to be passionate about obscure modern philosophers, post-punk shows and late-night parting, but it all wearied me. I assumed that something was wrong with me. Why did I find it impossible to seriously discuss a gallery exhibit featuring a basket of crushed aluminum cans and underwear stretched on pieces of wire? Why did I find no joy in watching a performance artist squawk like a chicken for fifteen minutes? Fortunately, I quickly wearied of my “alternative life-style,” and right then a friend phoned me asking if I wanted to go to Japan. I had always had an interest in Asian cultures, and I esteemed myself a floater par excellence, so within a month I found myself in Kyoto, Japan.
I quickly acclimated to my new surroundings. Within two weeks I was enrolled in a language course and had found a position teaching English. It was peculiar to be in a country where one could leave their car running while they went into a store and not worry about it being stolen. Honesty was the norm and it initiated a change in me. My conscience began to return to life. I felt an immense relief, when I began to do simple things like paying the proper toll on the subway. It was a mere adherence to the law without any deeper understanding, but it was the catalyst for subtle changes, and I began to breathe more easily.
Living in the ancient capital of Japan exposed me to two thousand years of tradition on a daily basis. I had grown up in the suburbs of southern California (the oldest building in my neighborhood being ten years old); here I was living next to a thousand year-old temple which had served countless emperors. The temples, gardens, and customs began to feed a soul that had consumed far too much tar. Naturally attracted to the beauty of the traditions, I commenced upon a phase of dabbling in Zen Buddhism. For my easily distracted and impatient mind it was too much. In a Zen temple there is only one correct way of performing any action and it must be done precisely. My bows were too violent, my posture never erect, and my socks never clean enough. The priest shuddered at my appearance. Perfection was demanded and I came up far short. I finally stopped not because of my inadequacy, but because of the utter lack of joy I felt there. It was all too mechanical: push the right buttons and attain enlightenment. There was a calmness I felt after meditating, but did this really help anyone else? I supposed I could attain this state with much less effort through a tranquilizer.
Three years passed, my Japanese was adequate, and I felt I had gleaned everything useful from the culture. The challenge of surviving in a foreign culture had disappeared, my salary was high, my job easy, I could see myself becoming complacent. It would be very easy to pass the next forty years in this very warm niche that I had carved out. I quit my job, gave up my house and began my slow journey back to America.
I travelled all over Asia from Vietnam down to Singapore with no clear destination in mind. The excitement of new places and travelling companions kept me distracted most of the time, but before bed the dull pain of emptiness would return. I was still desperately searching for that element that was missing in my life. I travelled to the remote sacred places of the Buddhists and the Hindus; by the time I reached them I was already planning the next stage in my trip. During my travels through Burma, I visited a temple on the edge of Mandalay. Thousands of steps led up the side of a mountain to the temple which overlooked the entire city. As I made my ascent, I perceived a Buddhist monk next to me matching my stride. He was in his fifties, short, slightly plump, with a ruddy cheerful countenance.
He introduced himself and we continued our climb. Arriving at the summit we sat on a wall of the temple talking as the sun set over Mandalay. After some introductory pleasantries, I turned the subject to the political situation in Burma (Burma is presently under a harsh military dictatorship) which murdered a large segment of the population after riots against corrupt policies in the late eighties). He sighed and looked upon me with a disappointed gaze,
“Why do you want to talk about that?”
I mumbled an excuse to cover the true reason, which was to display my knowledge of serious subjects. He steered the conversation in a completely different direction.
“Last week I saw a movie called ‘Jesus of Nazareth.’ What a wonderful life!”
For the next ten minutes he extolled the virtues of Christ.
I was being proselytized by a Buddhist monk, not to convert me to his religion but to Christianity. I was dumbfounded. I had thought myself far above Christianity since I was in high school, and here was a pagan giving me back what I had rejected. Because of the words of a simple Burmese monk, I was awakened to the fact that perhaps there was something more to Christianity than the veneer I had rejected. I still was not compelled at that point to make a serious investigation into Christianity, but the seed-bed was being prepared.
A short time passed and I travelled on to Nepal, where I was to meet some friends for a trek in the Himalayas. I arrived some time before them, and decided to spend the interim in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. I found one a short distance from Katmandu, which offered courses in English. I went as a cultural tourist, sampling the next dish at the smorgasbord of world religions.
I arrived skeptical of everything, expecting to find lots of spaced out new-agers. After the first few days my opinions were completely altered. This wasn’t a feel-good chiliastic religion; these were people honestly struggling to attain the truth. I was astonished to learn that they believed in hell. Who in this modern age believes in hell? But for them it was the natural outcome of a wasted life. I was intrigued. I began to listen more carefully as further doctrines were disseminated. The core of the religion is the idea that all beings live in a transitory realm of desire and suffering. All suffering is created by chasing after that which is impermanent; instead one must look toward that which is permanent: the truth. The only way to attain this is to cease clinging to ones ego, and instead to live for others. Only when we put others’ happiness above our own can we have happiness ourselves. I was stunned: after 27 years of being told, “Do whatever feels good,” the Tibetans were telling me that whatever feels good will probably make you miserable in this life or the next.
This was a revolutionary idea to me, but at the same time I had a vague feeling I had heard it somewhere before.
After a few weeks at the monastery, I left to go trekking with my friends who had now arrived in Nepal. We took a bus across country and began our trek into the Annapurna mountain range. With full packs we ascended to 14,000 feet over the next two weeks. The scenery was stunning, the terrain changing from fertile valleys to dense forests, to snow covered summits. The hiking was drudgery at times, as we would ascend 1,000 feet and then enter a valley where we would descend the same amount. The beauty of creation was astonishing, but every night as I lay down to sleep that old feeling of missing something reappeared; I assumed this would vanish once I arrived at the base of the Annapurnas.
We reached our destination one afternoon, breathless and more than a bit disappointed. The entire area was swallowed by a huge cloud bank which we were inside. We explored the glaciers and spent time huddled next to a stove in a small tea hut. By night there was no sign of a cloud break. We went to sleep and were awakened just before dawn with the news char the weather had cleared. I came outside and one of the most astonishing sights in the world greeted my eyes. The sun slowly rose over the top of the world, which I felt I could reach out and touch. Then that dastardly thought arose in my mind, “What’s the point?” Then it dawned on me: this whole trip had been done for my own gratification. As soon as the momentary high was gone, I would be back in my own normal state. I had struggled with blisters, bad knees and giardia, and for what? To see an exalted, but in the end just another pretty view. Had this improved me as a person or helped anyone else? No, it had merely fed my ego; I had acquired excellent fodder for conversation at parties. Where had all my high Buddhist ideals gone? At that moment I realized my life had to be dedicated to some higher principle than earthly pleasure. I decided to return to the monastery.
I spent the next few months studying Tibetan Buddhist philosophy and meditation techniques. Still there were certain elements I had trouble accepting. The doctrine of Karma seemed to allow for no free will in man; ones decisions to do good or evil were always controlled by previous actions. How would it be possible to break free, if every decision was predetermined? If one had sinned since beginningless time as they believed, how could one ever purify oneself in such a short life? In some ways, what was so difficult was that it was so logical; it seemed devised by a human mind. Still the philosophy of self-sacrifice had rooted itself in me, even if I had failed to act upon it; I knew I could no longer live the life I had.
While at the Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I began reading The Way of a Pilgrim. I saw in the pilgrim the manifestation of self-abnegation and compassion that I had found in Tibetan Buddhism, yet it came from the Christian tradition I had been raised with. Why had I never heard about this in my Catholic church growing up? Stranger still was the fact that my sister was a Russian Orthodox nun and yet I knew nothing of the religions mystical qualities. I decided that perhaps I was not ready to become a Buddhist and that I should inquire further into my own heritage.
After being hit on the head enough times, I finally came to the conclusion that all of my travels were rather pointless and that I needed to return home and anchor myself. I had plans to meet friends in Egypt for Christmas, but I found a cheaper flight to Istanbul and thought that would be a good departure point for Western Europe and the U.S. The carrier was Aeroflot. A few days later it registered in my mind that Aeroflot was the Russian airline and my sister was living in Moscow. I thought perhaps they might have a stop-over in Moscow. It turned out they did. Within a few days I had a three-week stopover and a visa for Russia. I flew into Moscow on St. Herman’s day.
My sister greeted me at the airport and thus began my three-week crash course in Orthodoxy. A new world began to open to me. I was in a land where people died for Christ, and the intersession of the saints was a normal event. This was not an empty Christianity viewed as a social obligation. These were people who had endured incredible hardships in suffering for the truth.
I began reading volumes on Orthodoxy, visiting churches, and civilly discussing with my sister the differences in Orthodox and Buddhist tenets. She kept on coming back to the same point: Christianity has the truth in the form of a person. I failed to understand the importance. Force or person, I could not see the difference.
Then I met Fr. Artemy, a well-known Moscow priest with a huge congregation. He is a self-sacrificing man, whose entire life is dedicated to Christ and the spreading of the Gospel. We arrived at his church during the Saturday-night vigil. We found him hearing confessions surrounded by a crowd of fifty to a hundred people waiting to confess. I stood at the edge of the circle and before much time had passed I was pulled into its center by Fr. Artemy. With eyes closed, hands on my shoulders he began speaking to me. When he wished to emphasize a point, he would ram his forehead into mine. As he spoke to me in a highly florid English, I had the overwhelming impression that this priest, whom I had never met, knew much more about me than he should. What truly shook me was the feeling that he was urgently concerned with my soul, as though he had a personal stake in it. He spoke to me for ten minutes while the babushkas impatiently began tightening in on us. He continued talking, telling me that my experience in Nepal had been given me by God to pull me out of materialism. Then he told me why Christianity was the true faith: only it had a personal God. I still failed to understand the importance of this fact, but I left feeling lighter, although I had said almost nothing.
In the barren sepulchre of Moscow a new world began to open to me. The oppression of the city weighed little on me, as I realized that the heavenly realm of God and His saints was actually closer than the gray slab buildings dominating the city. I visited the St. Sergius Lavra and for the first time was able to venerate the relics of a saint. In those “dead bones” there seemed to be more life than in all of southern California. My stay culminated with Nativity at the Valaam Metochion. I felt as though I was surrounded by what appeared to be ordinary people, yet they remained with one foot in heaven. Christianity may be a religion of intangible faith, but I seemed to be receiving tangible verification everywhere I turned.
A few days later I left Moscow. Before my departure, my sister chastised me, saying, “My dear, if you can spend three months sitting with the Buddhists, you can at least spend one standing with the Orthodox.” Which is exactly what I did. Increasing the pace of my return, I arrived in California two months later. On the eve of Annunciation I travelled up the rough dirt road to the St. Herman of Alaska Monastery. The first thing that struck me, having just come up from San Diego, was the fact that these monks were anachronisms in the twentieth century. Who heard of giving up comfort and possessions in these times? It was the middle of Lent and it was clearly visible that these men were in the midst of spiritual warfare. Sobriety permeated the monastery. They seemed ready to die for the truth, and that was not something I had seen at IBM, Art School or in Japan. There was suffering in those places, but were they willing to give everything for the one thing needful? After all I had seen, I still did not have a firm belief in God, but I knew these monks saw something and I wanted it.
Lazarus Saturday arrived. On this day the Church commemorates Christ raising Lazarus from the dead after four days. I was awakened early to attend Liturgy at a nearby convent, followed by a meal there. After I awoke, I immediately fell back asleep. When I finally did rise from my bed, I found the entire monastery empty. Not a soul remained. As I wandered through the monastery, the verse, “Behold the Bridegroom cometh at midnight, and blessed is that servant whom he shall find watching,” ran through my head. And chat was exactly what had occurred both physically and spiritually. God had knocked and offered me a feast, but I had remained reticent. Had God finally closed the door on me? I began the descent down the mountain, hoping to hitch-hike to the convent. As I walked I contemplated the events of the morning, and it seemed obvious that God had allowed me to be left behind to rouse me from my indecision. Then it finally hit me, what was meant by a personal God. Why would an impersonal force send me such a clear message for the salvation of my soul? If it was impersonal, why should it care what happened to me? Love cannot exist except between people. A force cannot love (and I challenge you to try to love an impersonal force). Therefore I came to the conclusion that God had to be a Person. As I arrived at this deduction, I heard a car approaching me from behind: it was our only neighbor on the mountain. I flagged him down and by a strange “coincidence” it happened that he was making his once-a-week trip to the store which neighbored the convent. I arrived in time for Liturgy.
Two years have passed and I am now a ryassophore monk, an anachronism if you will. My struggles have not ceased) but my days of wandering are at an end. I sometimes mourn over my wasted past, but when I look more closely I see God’s hand guiding me through even the most barren of times. Now He has brought me here for a reason, but that must still be revealed.