Entering the Church on Her Terms
In the free world people will "shop" for a religion or "shop" for a church that suits them - one that agrees with their personal religious philosophy. But in Orthodoxy it is the opposite. In Orthodoxy we submit to the Church, recognizing the Truth in Her, and we allow Her to shape our thinking and reform our minds. It is a process, and does not happen overnight. Fr. Seraphim Rose describes this process as "acquiring the mind of the Fathers" which is accomplished by study with prayer. Prayer is necessary, since the heart and the mind are not separate, one will affect the other. And because it is not possible to acquire the mind of the Fathers without God's help.
Often, in the beginning of our Orthodox journey, this submitting to the Church means paying a price. We sometimes have to give up dearly cherished ideas and notions. Or we might have to give up certain positions we hold, or irregular relationships, or improper living arrangements or even our jobs. Orthodoxy is the pearl of great price - the treasure hidden in the field for which a man sells all in order to buy that field.
One example I know is a woman who was a priestess in the Episcopal church when she discovered Orthodoxy. She had to forsake a large portion of her future retirement income. Today she has mission church in her house in a remote area. Another example is a young man who was a drummer in a successful rock band, with a degree in music from a Christian college. He was deeply saddened to learn there is no place for rock music in the Church. Today God uses his musical talents in the cliros [choir] of his monastery. Another example is a man who was a pseudo-priest in a non-canonical pseudo-jurisdiction - so bogus it is not even "on the map" - but it calls itself Orthodox: the so-called "American Orthodox church." Only heaven could have led him out of the deception. Today he is an archpriest in our ROCA under Vladyka Agafangel. His story appears below, as he told it to another man whose soul is struggling for escape from that very same bogus jurisdiction:
Blessings, _________, in the Lord Jesus! Please forgive the delay in responding -- fall and early winter are terribly busy for me (with Press work 3-4 times as heavy as for most of the year). Into the mix, I wanted to reflect a while as to how I might best respond to you, and as well collect some data to help with a better reply.
In the course of that, I stumbled across some information which shows that we share (albeit at considerable difference in time) some common history. In the 70s, my Matushka and I spent several years in the orbit of the "American Orthodox Catholic Church", first with "Bishop" Christopher Jones, and later with "Metropolitan" Trevor Moore (I as a "priest"). With the passage of time and some growth in the Faith, we became increasingly disturbed and uncomfortable with our position, as it gradually dawned upon us that Orthodoxy was something far greater than an alternative to Roman Catholicism (or, by that time, God forbid, Anglicanism, whence I had come). First clues were in publications and in the texts (then extremely limited in English) of the divine services. I was required to subscribe to the St. Vladimir Theological Review -- which I found to be disturbingly similar in tone and even content to the Anglican Theological Review.
The real wake-up call came when, in the late 70s, I was requested/directed to attend (and concelebrate) at the diocesan convention of the Western Rite Orthodox jurisdiction of "Bp" Francis Forbes in Nashville (with which we were in communion at that time). I found myself assisting at the consecrations to the episcopate of three candidates -- one of whom, the night before, declared that he "still had trouble with the Theotokos", and the other two (one of whom disappeared completely shortly thereafter and was discovered to be a total fraud) appeared scarcely more Orthodox. At the liturgy, I found myself concelebrating with an old friend and mentor (I had studied with him at a summer theological academy at Fordham), Abp. Joseph Raya, RC Melkite patriarch of Galilee. Far worse -- at the consecration, a bevy of Freemasons appeared, swords drawn, to "honor" the "sacrament". I felt obliged to write Trevor a lengthy "report" in which I had to tell him in no uncertain terms that I could never again in good conscience have anything to do with such goings-on (I should have unvested and walked out).
Our growing awareness led, in the summer of 78, to a lengthy pilgrimage of exploration (after our own diocesan convention in Philadelphia, a far less than satisfactory affair). We first visited SVS, where we found a nice bookstore -- but when asked for directions to the church discovered none, only a very small chapel in the seminary building, scarcely large enough to hold the faculty. Not for us. We journeyed on to St. Tikhon's Seminary, where we found a vast emptiness (classes were out of session). The solitary monk whom we encountered told us essentially the same -- Orthodoxy had fled from the place. He pointed out an elderly monk at some distance who, he said, had vigorously resisted the imposition of the Papal calendar -- and for his troubles was told to be quiet or be put away in a nursing home with no outside contact. Not for us.
A brief visit with the Fahey's (RC) at the Christian Homesteading Movement (long-time correspondents) in upstate NY was actually far more spiritually rewarding (we shared much in life-style).
Next stop was Holy Trinity Monastery in Jordanville. We stepped out of the car in front of the cathedral, looked around (again, seemingly empty -- it was late in the week after Pentecost, and everyone was exhausted from the feast), looked at each other, and breathed a sigh of relief. Instantly, we knew we were "home". Shortly, a monk came by, asked us if we would like to visit the church, unlocked & let us in a side door, and left us alone in the church. An hour or two later, we knew better yet how home we were. Some poking around and we discovered the bookstore (at that time squirreled away in a couple of rooms on an upper floor of the seminary building), where we were warmly received. We selected a few inexpensive items from the one bookcase of English books (we were desperately poor at the time), then were laden with gifts of other books and back issues of Orthodox Life and Orthodox Word. Later, over obligatory soup in the refectory, yet another addition -- a copy of My Life in Christ at which we had looked with longing, but found beyond our means.
We left knowing that we had found that for which we were looking, but nevertheless continued as planned to a couple of other places (including Abp. Joseph's "home base" at Combermere ON). Back home, we devoured the books and periodicals -- and I wrote a lengthy letter to Abbot Herman at Platina, to which I got an equally lengthy and gracious reply, the bottom line of which was "Come!" We prayed & meditated, determined that I couldn't do anything till the crops were in (we did large-scale gardening at that time) in November. Shortly before Thanksgiving I hit the road as a hitchhiker (no strange thing to me -- I had spent two years as a nomad before meeting Matushka) headed for Platina. It was far and away the fastest cross-country trip I'd ever made, as if on the wings of angels -- I couldn't have driven it in my own car in the time it took. The return trip was equally spectacularly speedy.
I spent most of a week there, principally with Fr. Seraphim of blessed memory -- working, praying, talking into the small hours of the morning. Throughout, he kept insisting that on my return trip I must go to San Francisco to venerate the relics of St. John (not yet glorified), and I kept assuring him that was out of the question -- I had only a finite time for the return trip, and my long experience taught me that getting in and out of a major city was the most difficult and time-consuming part of hitchhiking. When I was leaving after liturgy on Sunday, Fr. Seraphim came to me with three gifts: some sandwiches prepared by the sisters, a small vial of oil from the lamp at the relics of St. Nicholas -- and my bus/train fare into and out of San Francisco. OK, you win! Actually, I won.
Arrived at the cathedral mid-morning the next day, I found it locked; went, as directed, to the bookstore down the street, to gain access -- and found that it was closed on Mondays. I returned to the cathedral, had just started to call a former room-mate who lived in SF hoping to beg a sleeping spot for the night, when I saw someone go up the steps and enter. I hung up and ran across the street to pound on the door. The gentleman admitted me, told me he was only going to be there a short time, but would allow me to visit the relics (he locked me in) while he was there. Perhaps only the words of St. Vladimir's emissaries suffice -- I knew not whether I was in heaven or on earth, and had absolutely no sense of time; that "short while" might have been 15 minutes or a couple of hours. The die was cast -- it was just a matter of time and how.
We promptly changed from the papal to the Church calendar (with Trevor's assent), and continued to devour Orthodox literature. I continued to correspond with Fr. Seraphim, and began publishing Living Orthodoxy. Our first semi-official contacts with the Synod were not encouraging -- though when I sent a copy of one of the replies to a priest in the Synod with whom I had corresponded for some time, his response was "that's just Synodese for 'not yet'".
Following guidance received, in the late spring of 1980 I took a deep breath, said some special prayers, and picked up the phone to call Fr. Vladimir Shishkoff in NY (whom I did not know). He answered immediately (I later discovered that was a miracle in itself -- he was such a whirlwind of activity that it usually took several days to catch up with him) and introduced myself. His response? "We've been wondering when you would call. When can you come to New York?" Not yet -- my youngest son John was due to be born in June and I was the mid-husband. A few days after his birth I made the journey (hitchhiking again) and put myself in Fr. Vladimir's hands (and home).
After some lengthy discussions (Matushka and I had already come to this point), I told him we both wanted to be baptized, realizing that all which went before was entirely outside Orthodoxy. He concurred, and I was baptized forthwith at Our Lady of Kazan in Newark. The next day we went to meet with Bp. Gregory, who warmly received me -- as a layman. At that point we had no idea what our future would be. If the Church declined to ordain me, we would be compelled, as a matter of spiritual necessity, to relocate somewhere near a church where we could be part of a community of Faith. No small matter -- we were mountaineers/homesteaders, and there were no Synod churches (apart from the monasteries at Jordanville and Platina) except in urban areas -- and none closer than 5 hours away from us.
In the course of our discussions, I learned that just at its last meeting, the Synod of Bishops had adopted a policy that no convert was to be ordained to holy orders in less than 2 years from the time of his conversion (generally speaking, very wise). Bp. Gregory, however, felt that an exception should be made in my case -- but that he had no right to do so without obtaining the unanimous consent of the Synod. I sweltered (literally -- it was a 100+ degree summer) in Newark for two weeks awaiting the outcome of the long-distance deliberations. At one point Fr. Vladimir told me all but one of the bishops had consented, and the last one was "out of touch". I rather suspect that rather he (and I'm reasonably certain it was Abp. Antony of Los Angeles) was resisting, but finally consented. Complications ensued -- it was necessary for me to return home, Fr. Vladimir to journey to TN to baptize Matushka (I couldn't very well be ordained when she wasn't Orthodox) and newborn John, then for me to return to NY for ordination.
Bottom line -- we are called to humility and repentance, and if, by God's grace, we follow along that path, all will be for us as it should be -- though not necessarily as we think it should be!
I pray I haven't bored you or worn you out with this rather long-winded way of saying "welcome". But you must realize that that "welcome" is on the Church's terms -- not mine or yours.
Interestingly, yours is one of two similar letters (the other from Puerto Rico) received in the past days.
May the Lord bless and guide and preserve you!
In Christ Jesus,