I grew up as an Evangelical Christian (Southern Baptist to be specific) complete with all the biblical literalism and anti-sacramentalism that entailed. The conflict between the literal interpretation of the Scriptures and the symbolic view of the Eucharist and Baptism became apparent to me early in my teens. My reading at the time heavily revolved around C.S. Lewis which led me to the Church Fathers and early Reformers – with a particular interest in Martin Luther and the Anglican divines. I found Anglicanism to be particularly attractive, as I could view the sacraments as being “real” without having to give up all my Evangelical beliefs. As soon as I was old enough to start driving myself to church I started attending the local Episcopalian parish.
A combination of youthful rebellion, anger with God over personal issues to do with my family and the behavior of other Christians in general, and the fact that nothing in modern Anglicanism allows that denomination to have any real moral or spiritual authority over the life of the believer led me to become something of a lapsed Christian. I would attend for Easter and Christmas – when my work life made that possible – but that was pretty much it. Aside from that, I got my communal experience through partying and drug culture and let my prayer and spiritual life slide into the drain. I still considered myself a believer, but refused to label myself a Christian as nothing in my life at that point followed what I believed Christianity to be.
Toward the later part of my 20s I started to experience a craving for Church. I would attend the local Episcopalian parishes in an attempt to fill this craving, but I was confronted with a lack of belief in even the most basics of Christian teachings from the pulpits – and some homilies that eschewed any hint of the spiritual for political soapboxing.
Desperate to find the Church, I hit the books hard. I had always had a tendency to read the Church Fathers in my spare time- now I started reading them with devotion alongside the Scriptures. I would compare what I knew of the denominations with what I was finding and soon found myself between two extremes – either the true Church was a type of Catholicism, or one needed to start an emergent church with a strong Catholic streak. I started to fast following the rules of the Didache and to fervently entreat God to set me on the right path.
In my readings of Church History I tended to side with the Eastern Orthodox over the Roman Catholic Church in the basics – of course the filioque was going far beyond the revelation of both the Scriptures and the Church and of course papal authority was completely different in the early Church than the Roman Catholic claims. In divergences between Orthodox theology and Calvinist theology I also tended to side with the Orthodox. In ecclesial beliefs about the authority of the Church in Synods and bishops as well as who can and cannot become a part of the clergy I sided with the Orthodox. I was only leary of Orthodoxy’s claim to be the “One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church” of the Creed – it seemed to be the greatest hubris and barrier to ecumenical reunion.
I was also still following the news regarding the Episcopal Church and the then-forming offshoot of the ACNA. My initial “ah-ha” moment came when I saw a youtube video of an address by the then head of the OCA, Metropolitan JONAH, to the first assembly of the ACNA. At this assembly he laid out quite clearly what it would take for reunion between the two denominations: affirmation of the Seven Ecumenical Councils and the relevant local councils, no more priestesses, and removing the filioque from the Creed. Hearing this laid out so plainly was astounding – the Orthodox Church was not being overly prideful in asserting these things as necessary for communion, it was holding the line as it always had throughout the centuries.
With that, the Eastern Orthodox Church’s true Church claim had my intellectual assent. But all this was still theory, at this point I had never so much as stepped into an Orthodox parish. It would take several months before I was able to clear out my schedule enough in order to attend – I worked a job that required working weekends and evenings conflicting with the local vespers and liturgy times. Still, during this time I did what I could. I would read the Horologion during my downtime at work, I said my morning and evening prayers from the Antiochian Little Red Prayer Book, so helpfully provided online, and I read Scripture daily from the Orthodox lectionary. During this time the last of my Protestant hangups faded – while intellectually I believed in the veneration of the Blessed Theotokos, in practice it initially still felt wrong, but after a while it seemed the most natural thing ever.
Finally, I bit the bullet and went to All Saints Antiochian Orthodox Church in Chicago for a Vespers service. This particular Vespers service held a surprise- it was the eve of the feast of the one saint that even the most anti-saint Evangelical knows of: St Nicholas. Further, after I entered and was looking around rather nervously I was approached by a man (around my age) in a black robe (is this the priest, I thought) who asked in a quiet voice, “You’re new?” “Yes, I’ve never been here before.” “Are you Orthodox,” came the next question. “No, but I’m very interested in Orthodoxy.” He introduced himself as the Deacon Andrew (well, that’s one mystery solved already!), asked a few questions about my religious background, told me that a good portion of the parish was convert as well, and assured me that my not having a clue what was going on would not be a problem, that it was just fine if I observed.
I cannot describe that first Vespers service, or indeed that strange space I seem to enter during every Vespers service after The beginning of the service, as Fr Patrick intoned “Blessed is our God, always and unto the ages of ages,” in his deep, booming, Ent-like voice; the peace of the Psalms, the reverent sense of community of the various Litanies; the tinkling of the censer and smell of incense; the whole parish joyfully singing “Oh Gladsome Light;” the short homily on St Nicholas (that in itself was astounding- not often had I heard a homily so short yet so profound. Father Pat said more in ten minutes than the preachers of my childhood said in thirty); all these different things added up so that I finally understood: “Yes, it is more magic!” This was magic in its truest, deepest sense. These rituals were not men trying to manipulate God into obeying rather arbitrary rules- the Evangelicals are correct when they say God does not need ritual. These rituals were for us, for men, an exact formula designed to put us in the proper mindset to lay aside our earthly cares and join in a community of believers that brings light beyond the shadow of death; a deeper magic of which the necromancers of old could only dream. The most modern, charismatic, rock’n’roll service could not dream to capture the spirit found in these haunting acapella hymns, hymns that have not changed in a thousand years; the loudest crash of the cymbal could not awaken me more than the soft tinkling of the bells on the censer.
From that point on, I could never attend any other denomination’s services. Orthodoxy had conquered me thoroughly.