There have been so many “aha” moments since coming to Orthodoxy – so very many from Fr.’s sermons and teachings that some I recall vividly the moment of opening to illumination, while others feel so familiar now as having always been woven into who I am and how I understand God.
Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning when completely ignorant on the Christian Orthodox faith – not all that long ago. Contacting Fr. John after many years of absence, I was immediately introduced to the strangeness of learning one of the most humble men I’d known was now titled an “Archpriest”. I didn’t know what that was, but it produced a sense of awe of strangeness in elevation. What great joy to find the man behind the title as humble, yet seeming more free and in joy than when I knew him before his entry into Orthodoxy.
We had shared the same faith base which we both had left at different times. Since then I had tried to commit to a series of different Christian faiths. In the South where I was living there were mega churches on most every corner. I would worship in large communities where many hundred would be singing, clapping and dancing in the aisles to contemporary hymns whose words were displayed on a large screen behind the band (with drums) on the stage. I was involved with communities with large, specifically age-defined relational groups, or small designated Care Groups which acted like small families within the larger church providing to each member the personal love, care and support as in biological families. I was blessed by knowing God-loving people whom I loved in return. But I never could find peace with the theology believed.
At the time of reconnection with Fr. John I was with a small Anglican community, feeling familiar to what I’d known, yet still there was that which wasn’t “Truth”. Not knowing of Orthodoxy, I prayed for something “ancient”, something as close as would be of Christ’s time, true faith as lived by those who had lived with Him. I researched the theology of every Christian faith in my area. I prayed, I wept. I owned my dream home and property, had a management level position in a field I loved, friends and every convenience I could seem to want. But I was lacking what was most important. A way to be in community and worship, live, serve, and love God the way He was truth to me.
It was at this time God guided me to reconnect with Fr. John. He’d respond with saying “We had a wonderful picnic after Liturgy in the Mother of God’s garden today”, or ‘We’re just back from a joyful time with our loved ones in the cemeteries celebrating Joy Day”, things foreign to me but which sparked my spirit with a feeling of life. I’d eagerly write back asking for more information, detail…”How is it that the Mother of God (She who had not figured in other faiths I’d visited) would have a garden?”, “Why would one go to a cemetery to sing hymns…and feel joy amongst the dead where I’d only known sorrow to reign?” Fr. John would never evangelize, even when I wanted him to! He’d ask about the faith I was visiting, encourage me to speak to my pastor about dissatisfactions. He allowed God to guide for His will, imposing none of his own.
In my spiritual emptiness I was growing more desperate. I don’t recall seeking outward signs before, but for some reason I reached a point where I told God that I needed something “in my hands” by that Friday to show me what His will was. Not my will or any delusion, but that would be clearly His will for me. In my hands. (Praying God would forgive my poor imitation of Gideon’s asking for a sign of the fleece!) On Friday I went unsuspectingly to the mailbox, pulling out a package from Fr. John he’d not indicated to expect. As I opened it standing alongside the street, it revealed 2 books, For the Life of the World by Alexander Schmemann, and The Orthodox Way by Bishop Kallistos Ware. I knew I was holding in my hand God’s answer to His will.
Excitedly I read both works that weekend, twice. I’d loved Christ since first memory, always choosing, seeking, and devoting myself to Him in all my limited brokenness of what I had to offer. No love or life meant more. Yet I was told through the years that the essence of my faith and belief in Him was in error – such a Christ didn’t exist, such a faith had no foundation. Yet page after page I read my own heart what I’d known to be Truth yet had so long been denied me. Sunday afternoon I lay the books aside and knew in my heart I would be surrendering all I knew and which brought comfort for the one thing which truly mattered… I’d be moving to Santa Fe, NM, to become Orthodox.
It took about 2 weeks to have the courage to let Fr. John know of my decision, waiting ‘til the very end of a conversation to explain how God had moved through his sharing knowledge of Orthodoxy in answer to a specific prayer. Fr. John was silent for a moment, and then in a voice of the wonder of faith said, “Well, I guess you’re moving to NM, then!” He did present later the possibility of just visiting first, but God knew my fickleness and if I were allowed to start analyzing, comparing, taking from my heart of faith to my mind of failed reasoning I’d be lost – as Peter looking down and realizing he was walking on water. So preparations to move began.
My Christian realtor who sold me my dream home fired me as seller, saying my heart wasn’t in it and in the extreme low realty market of that time she’d have no hope of being successful. Finding another Christian realtor I attempted again. One deterrent was I refused to show the home on Sundays, being the Lord’s day for His purposes. As that’s one of the busiest days for buyers to be out it was perceived an obstacle, but I held fast.
It was April/May and I felt I should be in NM by fall to avoid winter difficulties. My realtor – as many others at the time – had not made any sale for a very long time so was not encouraging, saying at even the best of circumstances I should expect at least 18 months on the market. I knew that was a reality, but I also knew the urging I had within for trust was a greater reality. So that all glory to God might be revealed – even offering encouragement to my beleaguered agent – he finished setting up the “For Sale” signs and posting the home’s touring video on Sat evening. No showings were allowed the next day on Sunday. Monday morning we had our first viewer. Thursday morning we had a signed contract! There were the usual matters to be worked out, but instead of fall as I’d hoped, I arrived in Santa Fe mid-July. Travel worn and weary, my first day awakening in Santa Fe was a Sunday. As Khouria Photina ushered me into Holy Trinity, the first time ever in an Orthodox church, an experience of the kingdom of heaven opened before me and all around me. After so many weeks of longing and imagining what could be this “dance” Fr. described, I was finally now a part.
Through a very long struggle of making the Orthodox faith my own in as full of understanding as possible and the difficult process of uprooting and letting go of long held previous teachings, the experience of His kingdom has never changed except to deepen as His Holy Saints have revealed themselves noetically as His saints among us at Holy Trinity have in love and community. Glory to God for All Things!