Why Orthodoxy?—My Confession of Faith:
How I discovered new meaning in the word “catholic” and the true challenge of a Christian life
“In His unbounded love, God became what we are that He might make us what He is.” —St. Irenaeus (d. 202)
I am in love. The object of my affection, or rather, my devotion, is not a person per se, though it is very much alive. It has been alive for 2,000 years, all but unchanging, and in that time it spread from the eastern shores of the Mediterranean north and east, ultimately to the shores of Alaska. Now it is very much established and thriving here in the U.S. What is this thing that has become such a defining part of my life? I have fallen in love with the Orthodox Church.
It is difficult for me to render into words an account of the transformation that this awakening has wrought in all areas of my life. I feel myself to be at last truly satisfied, spiritually and emotionally. I feel enriched beyond description after years of an ever-present void. From the depths of my heart I sense that I am now a more fulfilled Christian, and above all I know that I am a moreinspired human being. Sadly in this increasingly secular society, many people my age do not want or desire such inspiration. For the rare college student who craves a deeper inspiration that goes beyond a routine weekly church hour, for anyone who wants to enter into a new level of spiritual life, I urge him or her to consider Orthodoxy. It has awakened in me a kind of spiritual consciousness that I never imagined I would experience, a kind of spiritual inspiration that very few of my non-Orthodox friends have today. For this awakening, I am, and will always be, forever grateful.
Before I begin, I wish to thank two dear friends who have had the biggest impact on introducing me to Orthodoxy, Rebecca Dixon and Gillian Davies. They exemplify all that is best about the faith first and foremost in their incredible kindness and warmth. They are two of the most intelligent, cultured, and open-minded individuals I have ever met. Typical of most Orthodox who encounter a would-be-convert, they would probably tell you that they had little to do with my spiritual journey, saying such a thing is something that can only begin and evolve in the individual’s heart and soul.
But they did more than simply start me off on my journey. After I met them when I started attending weekly 5 pm Orthodox vespers at Kay Spiritual Center at American University during the fall 2010 semester, they provided me with so much counsel and encouragement. They were welcome and informative company to the Sunday liturgies I insisted on attending as often as I could. They answered the many questions I had, and introduced me to two beautiful churches. Most of all, they shared with me their own unique personal experiences with Orthodoxy.
Because Gillian, a Greek-British American, preferred to attend Sunday liturgy at St. Sophia (Holy Wisdom), the Greek Orthodox cathedral a mile down Massachusetts Avenue from American University, I was able to experience worship in that church whose beauty is truly breathtaking. Gillian has graduated, so besides one very kind, thoughtful priest there, Fr. Dimitri Lee, who sang the weekly vespers at American, I know no one at that Cathedral, so St. Sophia will not be my spiritual home. It has a very strong ethnic character in the sense that the overwhelming majority of its parishioners are Greek. I think it’s wonderful that they want to keep their historical and cultural identities alive, especially in such a pressingly secular society as the US where we have really no concrete sense of what constitutes a universal “American culture.” Since I am not Greek, I won’t be joining the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, but I will be glad in the future to be a communicant on the occasions when I decide to visit that beautiful church.
I think Gillian understands. She proved invaluable in helping me improve on my Greek-reading, though I think I’ll continue to pronounce the letter ‘tau’ incorrectly! In our walks to and from church during Great Lent on Mondays when we trekked over to hear Fr. Dimitri sing the office of Great Compline, she shared her thoughts on the Faith, the Church, and some of her own personal views on its teachings and St. Sophia’s own traditions, as a parishioner and someone who was “cradle” Orthodox. I realized that by entering the Church, I would not be required to subscribe to some sort of ideological litmus test, but be encouraged, in every liturgy, and indeed, in every moment of my life, to believe in the Orthodox way, and put its teachings into practice. Thanks to Gillian I have come to appreciate how the Church stands for certain things, and does take specific positions on contemporary issues, but it does not focus so much on projecting an absolute image of itself to an ever-changing world as much as it emphasizes staying true to its rich Tradition.
As soon as I met Rebecca I saw that she has a love for life and an infectious spontaneity, twin attributes inestimable in any friend. Although she was only in DC during the fall 2010 semester, we’ve kept in touch, especially on Facebook where I love to share my latest stories and updates about my spiritual life at St. Nicholas, the church she introduced me to in November. She loves to converse on all matter of things, from travelling abroad (she recently was in India spending her summer in New Delhi and Kashmir) to Canadian politics (she worked in the Library of Parliament in her native Ottawa) to different cuisine and languages.
I will always remember our many treks to St. Nicholas Cathedral for the Sunday Divine Liturgy, both for the amazingly lively conversations we had at 8:30 on mornings when most students slept in, and for the frequent snow and rain that often made it necessary to run to church! When she visited DC during Holy Week in April, perfect timing to have my old Orthodox buddy back in town, we had to sprint through pouring rain to get to the morning liturgy on Holy Wednesday, and I was in a suit! (Neither of us had umbrellas.) I remember that liturgy especially because upon entering St. Nicholas, Rebecca, who sang in her church’s choir back in Canada, immediately walked over to where the choir members stood, and proceeded to join them and the Metropolitan in their singing!
She is a member of the Orthodox Church in America, an autocephalous (fully self-governing) body of several hundred thousand Orthodox in the US, Canada, and several communities in Central America. In addition to its Russian roots, the Church has a large and steadily growing number of members entering from mostly mainline Protestant groups, but there have also been considerable numbers of Catholic converts, as well as some evangelical Christians who have all come to Orthodoxy in recent years through the OCA.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Jonah, primate of the Church since 2008, has said in interviews that “our churches embrace a very broad diversity of peoples across the continent.” This is true, and one of the aspects of the OCA I find so attractive, along with its rich history. The Church in America is as old as the nation itself, historically founded in 1794 by Saint Hermann of Alaska, a Russian Orthodox monk who peacefully inspired the conversion of the Aleut population on Kodiak Island, learning the local native languages, and proceeded to minister to dozens of indigenous tribes.
Rebecca’s family exemplifies the incredibly embracing diversity of the OCA; her mother’s family is Jewish, and her mother made the difficult decision to enter the Church after she was born. Rebecca explained how her mother did not want to lose any of the cultural heritage with which she had grown up. After much thought and prayer her mother came to realize that embracing Orthodoxy did not mean she had to give up her family or her Jewish cultural roots. According to Jewish custom, which passes on the faith tradition through matrilineal descent, Rebecca and her mother, in addition to being Orthodox Christians, are also, and will always be, Jewish. As someone who has Jewish roots on my mother’s side of the family, I always thought it was beautiful that Rebecca could be both Jewish by heritage, and a Christian in her religion.
In addition to Rebecca’s wonderful sense of humor, and what I would describe as the enormously helpful ‘education’ that she gave me on really “all things Orthodox”, she also enlightened me early on in my studies of Orthodoxy, as I became increasingly interested in converting, that the OCA was no stranger to controversy. The Church has been going through controversy in many ways as painful as that which has been engulfing the Roman Catholic Church in recent years (albeit of a different cause.) I’m so grateful that she had the strength and forthrightness to share this with me.
More than anything else, I am grateful to Rebecca for introducing me to Saint Nicholas Cathedral, two blocks down Massachusetts Avenue from St. Sophia. This church is the primatial cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America, and it has been my spiritual home ever since that November day when she first took me with her to experience the Divine Liturgy there. Into this beautiful church (in which I feel I have been adopted) I have come as a cautious but hopeful catechumen.
Saint Nicholas Cathedral: A category all its own.
As soon as I heard the singing of the Cathedral choir on that November day when I first entered the church, I had an instant feeling that a new part of my life had begun. I fell in love with the indescribable chanting of the psalms, the beatitudes, Rachmaninov’s Magnificat, Lvovsky’s Cherubic Hymn, and so many other beautiful vocal offerings to God. Orthodox music, entirely unaccompanied by musical instruments, is the most stirring and heavenly I have ever heard.
Time and again, especially during Lent when the St. Nicholas community strenuously observed the Great Fast, I witnessed the deep piety of the congregation. I came to appreciate the community’s rich history, and as I felt more and more at home after each visit, I began to reach out and befriend several members of the parish. I met one of the young men my age, Mikhail Arsentiev (Михаил Арсентьев), during Lent at a Saturday vigil. He is a Russian who is entering GWU’s law school in the fall. He is a man of deep faith and reverence of God who serves in the altar. He has become one of my dear friends, and I have asked him to be my male sponsor for my approaching chrismation.
As I continued attending the liturgies, I came to like standing on my feet for over an hour during the service, thinking of the pews in Catholic and Protestant churches as things that distract you from why you’re really in church. I looked forward, and still look forward, to the Divine Liturgy as my favorite part of the whole week. My spiritual focus and energy has oriented around the weekend, when I participate in the All-Night Vigil (combined vespers and matins) on Saturday afternoon and then the Divine Liturgy on Sunday mornings. I focus on these things not to the detriment of the rest of my life, or to the exclusion of friends or family; on the contrary, I feel more connected to the world around me than ever before. At St. Nicholas, I found what I had unknowingly for years been searching for: a faith I loved, and wanted to live, and a community deeply imbued in history that warmly embraced me.
Gradually I came to know several of the priests. Several times after liturgy I talked with the now retired cathedral dean, the Very Rev. Constantine White, an AU alumnus and the Orthodox chaplain at Georgetown University. He reassured me that the OCA generally, and St. Nicholas Cathedral in particular, were practically “churches of converts”! Through the soft-spoken, very kind Fr. Valery Schemchuk I got a strong sense of the community’s Russian roots. He is now giving me instruction since I was formally received as a catechumen on the feast of the repose of St. Sergius of Radonezh, the great monastic and spiritual healer of Russia. He has shared with me many wonderful books, among them Wisdom from Mount Athos, a compilation of the writings of St. Silouan the Athonite (1866-1938) by his disciple Archimandrite Sophrony (1896-1993.) It is St. Silouan who I have taken as my patron saint. I feel especially grateful to Fr. Valery for all his kind guidance and wisdom. He provided my interfaith organization with a wonderful tour of the Cathedral in March 2011 during Lent. After experiencing the beauty of the vigil, many of the students left in wonder at what they had seen. One girl, a Mormon friend of mine, came up to me at the end with tears in her eyes and exclaimed that she had never before witnessed anything so compellingly beautiful.
Week after week I was drawn to the liturgy, and I began to talk with members of the diverse community, including two very active parishioners, Ms. Marilyn P. Swezey and Mrs. Lana Gerich. Ms. Swezey is a very friendly lady, always smiling, with kind things to say to all the children. Like me, she is a convert (from the Episcopal Church) and she loves Russian history—she is the parish historian, and a truly gifted writer. She’s hoping to organize a pilgrimage to the ancient monasteries of Russia, since she goes every year or so. Ms. Swezey forged a close relationship with her spiritual father, the late Bishop Basil Rodzianko, who for years made BBC radio broadcasts that were sent to the faithful in the USSR when the Church suffered under communist rule. He seems like truly a remarkable holy man, of whom I wish to learn more.
Mrs. Lana Gerich is an extremely kindhearted woman whose family history was closely entwined with the tragic events of the 1917 revolution. She is a woman of deep faith, great ability in languages, and administrative skill: she runs the church store downstairs, and has helped me choose two beautiful icons which I use in daily devotions. Her nonagenarian husband Andrei is a kind man with a self-deprecating wit. As we were leaving the parish office one day, he pointed to his head and insisted “I can still do everything, my mind works perfectly.” Pointing to his legs, he smiled. “These don’t respond as well! Now I still do everything, but slower.”
Ms. Swezey and Mrs. Gerich both sing in the Cathedral choir and encouraged me to join them! The very kind choir director Mrs. Veronica Gorodetskaia welcomed me to sing with the choir. She is one of the kindest women I have ever met, and her dedication to the cathedral and to the choir ‘family’ inspires me. I cannot describe the joy singing brings me, only to say that singing in the gallery with the choir during Liturgy has increased my awareness of the mystical beauty, power, and profound depth of Orthodox worship. When I sing, my heart and mouth pray as one; I truly feel closer to God. I remember the words of Psalm 140:1-2: “Lord, I have cried to Thee, hear me! Let my prayer arise in Thy sight as incense. And let the lifting up of my hands be an evening sacrifice.” I have begun singing with the choir each week at their Thursday rehearsals, so I hope in time to dedicate myself to the discipline of this truly incredible art form, Orthodox choral music.
Words will never do justice to the gratitude I feel toward so many members of this wonderful church. I have made many friends my age among the younger members of the congregation, including college students at AU (I met my girlfriend Julia for the first time at OCF vespers in September 2011), GWU (Mikhail), and Georgetown (Ivan and Katrina.) The extremely kind community of nuns welcomed me into their house a few minutes’ walk from the Cathedral, and during several visits I came to know that many of them were converts. The sisters departed after Lent, as their house will be making room for a new dean and his family. I wish very much that they could have stayed, since they are such lights to our community. I know that God will follow them and be with them wherever they go, which I hope is not far.
As my studies of Orthodoxy continued, I have been privileged to talk with His Beatitude Jonah, Archbishop of Washington and Metropolitan of all America and Canada, the primate of the Orthodox Church in America. He is becoming something of a spiritual father to me, always asking after my progress in catechism.
His Beatitude is a wonderful mentor and is always a source of inspiration. Elected in 2008 to lead the church after the resignation of its previous primate over an acutely embarrassing financial scandal, in his short time in office the Metropolitan has overseen an unparalleled period of revitalization in the OCA. This is in considerable part due to his magnetic energy and the truly pastoral spirit he brings to the OCA. When he gives sermons on the Sundays he is in residence at the Cathedral, he feels more like a church pastor than its enthroned primate. Besides reading and hearing about his immense ambitions for the intellectual and monastic life of the church, I have witnessed firsthand the loving, fatherly spirit he brings with him whenever he is present in the cathedral.
Controversy and disagreements inevitably accompany any attempts at reform, with the latest controversy being the Metropolitan’s desire that the headquarters of the Church be moved from Syosset, NY, to Washington, DC at St. Nicholas. Located on Long Island where my family lives, Syosset is a small hamlet with a tiny Orthodox community, but the headquarters is in a costly mansion with which many OCA administrators and laypersons staffed there are woe to part. Despite much criticism, His Beatitude has continued to lead the Church in a spirit of Christian forgiveness and fortitude in moving past the scandals and reaching out to other traditional Christian denominations eager for fellowship and possible communion. Above all, he has committed himself to a broad and encompassing vision for Orthodoxy in America that focuses on the possibilities of an expanded, rejuvenated and more visible Church in the future, beyond his own tenure as primate. For his inspiring vision, guiding pastoral care, and his kind encouragement, I am deeply grateful.
Now that I have expressed my gratitude to the individuals who had the most important impact on inspiring and guiding me toward Orthodoxy, I will try in a humble attempt to explain these developments in my life. I intend this account to be both a reflection on my own ever-progressing journey to Orthodoxy, as well as an invitation to any Catholic, Protestant, or even non-Christian readers interested in Orthodoxy to learn more about it. (This entire account is, in summary, one sentence: an invitation to the Divine Liturgy.) I will first, in Part I, give an outline of what it is about the Orthodox faith that draws me to it so much, and then in Part II I will give my reasons for why I decided after months of soul-searching to depart from the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised.