The first Orthodox book I ever read was one I found in the library at the Episcopal Church I attended. It had been checked out one time in the 20+ years it had been on the shelf. It was “The Mystical Theology of the Orthodox Church” by Vladimir Lossky. Of course Lossky lost me for the most part. I re-read it ten years later and realized that what I did get I got only slightly. But slightly was good enough to put me on the path to spending several mortgage payments on Orthodox books over the next 12 years. Soon afterward Lossky I read “Becoming Orthodox”, Fr. Peter Gilquist’s saga of the Evangelical Orthodox groups’ issues, hurdles, rejections and speedbumps in trying to enter the Church. While it touched on some hot button Protestant issues, I realized a few years later that I only slightly got what was so hard about becoming Orthodox other than getting over Mary, liturgy and praying to dead people. After being Orthodox for almost 18 years now, I’ve decided it was easier for me to become Orthodox even in the face of all the intellectual and cultural issues than it has been to stay Orthodox in the face of what I found once I was in.
Originally what hooked me was the quest for the “Intellectual Apostolic theological first century Church”, the unbroken thread of dogmatic truth. Then I started reading monastic books, the Desert Fathers, and the lives of the saints. If this is what the church did to people, I knew I had found the body of Christ. I knew the true, living First Century Church was still alive and well.
All the stuff I read in books convinced me that I had found a Church of saints. But finding Orthodoxy through books was kind of like online dating. I read the online profile and saw the pictures and based on what I read, I decided to meet the Church in person. When I actually started dating the Church in person, I discovered that the true, living first century Church was indeed in fact still alive and well… My first date with the Church was a Saturday night vespers service at a Greek cathedral that had hundreds of members. There were three of us who visited. We met the chanter, his girlfriend and the priest. They were the only ones there. We visitors outnumbered the members 3 to 1. So, my date had a bad haircut, but I was still head over heels for her beauty. The longer I dated her I found she had annoying habits, bad breath, was awkward, inappropriate, embarrassing, and rude… and yet, sometimes in just the right light, there was the beauty…. Oh, the beauty that will make you weep.
So, I found the Church… I hoped for saints but I found the church of Corinthian libertines. I hoped for one uniform understanding of the Gospel but found Galatian fundamentalists. I hoped for the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace but found Timothean contentious schismatics. I hoped for humble pious clergy but found 3rd John clerics who loved their pre-eminence and respectful greetings in the marketplace. I hoped for the unspotted bride of Christ but found the seven churches of Revelation, Ephesians who had left their first love, pagan Pergamites, lukewarm Laodiceans. I hoped for a church with one mind but found nit picking Pharisees and savvy Sadducees. I hoped for speaking the truth in love but found arrogant apologists. I hoped for pure Christianity and found sychretistic and superstitious Colossians.
I hoped I would find bishops that “rightly divided the word of Thy truth” according to the truth as I understood it from Orthodox websites and discussion forums. But I found that bishops trump Facebook groups. I hoped to find the administration of the Church to be like the management of my own business, with transparency, timely decisiveness, sensibility, with no respect of persons, and clarity in communication. I hoped to find clerics and parish life that fit my understanding of church leadership, ministry and the Christian life filtered through my American fundamentalist Bible Church experience rather than Middle Eastern cultures.
Well… you get it… In short, I didn’t get it. Contrary to my old Bible church’s teachings, New Testament Christianity didn’t have to be re-discovered or restored, it was still in existence dogmatically and practically. The Church had both an unbroken apostolic succession and an unbroken succession of sinners both within the clergy and laity. And just as the presence of Christ himself in the flesh and 12 first-hand witnesses and 70 disciples empowered by the Holy Spirit couldn’t give us a prettier picture of the Church in the New Testament, so 2000 years of tradition apparently could not either.
In actuality, that is good news and bad news, but not really bad news, just real news. The only people who think it is bad news are people who have a problem with reality, both within themselves and in other people. It took me about 14 years and a couple year break from the Church to get over myself, my ego, judgmentalism, and delusions and to finally face both realities. In a sense I went through a spiritual adolescence because I had a whole new world to explore outside myself and make sense of instead of looking at myself. I knew almost everything, judged almost everyone, and understood almost nothing.
The problem was I had read a lot of books over six years before ever visiting a church. Then within the first months of attending services I was on several discussion forums on the internet. I came into Orthodoxy knowing better what was “really Orthodox” than people who had been Orthodox their entire life.
It didn’t occur to me that it was a spiritual liability that I had only read about the Church and the carefully culled and edited sayings of people who were the cream of the crop of over 2000 years of church history. I had only encountered the words of the church, I had not actually encountered the living Church. I never dawned on me that I was handicapped because I only knew Orthodoxy on the internet and among mostly other new converts. We were like an internet discussion group about India on Ten Dollars a Day and phonetically learning tourist phrases because we didn’t know the language. As internet converts we were a microcosm, an internet echo chamber we could shout into and hear our own voice about issues reverberate for days or weeks or yes, even years. When our mission parish was assigned a cradle priest and some cradle Orthodox faithful joined up, I soon found that the bishop, clergy and the Church in general didn’t care about my opinions, prognostications, interpretations of the canons, the Fathers, spiritual disciplines, and who should be ordained, defrocked or commemorated like people on the internet did. They weren’t even impressed with my spiritual disciplines. I remember sitting at coffee hour with a group of other converts during Lent and an old Russian guy looked at us and said, “Why don’t you people shut the H up about fasting and just do it.”
I kind of knew I was a newbie, but I did not consider myself to be like St. Paul’s Pharisee who had “zeal without knowledge”… After all, I had read BOOKS! I had zeal for the Church WITH knowledge. I considered myself a prophet calling out the sins of the people and a shepherd guiding the erring sheep and some of the erring sheep wore hats. It did not occur to me that maybe I might have been right about some things, but I was in their ears St. Paul’s noisy gong and clanging cymbal because I lacked love. But, but I would say, I am speaking the truth in love…. But in reality it was prelest, the love of my ego and knowledge. It was condescension, not love that I had. I always loved the Peanuts cartoon where Linus says, “I love humanity, it’s people I can’t stand”. It occurs to me now that I lived in my self-defined cartoon reality where I loved the “Church” but couldn’t stand some of the members of the body of Christ. And it never occurred to me that the Church was condescending to me by accepting me and my spiritual narcissistic adolescent Ortho-zealotry and condemnations of things I did not and even could not understand from my books and limited experience.
The fact of the matter is, when I finally got out of my convert microcosm what I found was the one true Church and all of its one true unbroken (and broken) reality. I intellectually knew the dogmas, and what I found was dogma of the Church was really true in reality and I could not handle it. You see, the Church’s dogma recognizes and confronts the reality our diseased human nature at its sickest and most vile. The dogma also recognizes and confronts the Divine that took on our flesh and nature and heals our wounds in His divine nature. The church’s dogma pulls no punches on human nature or divine nature. It shouts both realities from the rooftops. It cannot do otherwise because our very salvation is dependent on a clear vision of both because of the Incarnation of God: the union of the person of God with our very, true and real flesh as a human person. Dogma is ultimately personal and therefore, pastoral.
The Church has existed from day one with its eyes wide open. The scriptures show that it accepted a reality that I could not. I would have been just as miserable a Christian at Corinth in the first century as in a parish in the 21st. Orthodoxy, both dogmatically and in real life will not permit you to avoid, ignore or shy away from the fallen or the divine in yourself and in others. This is ultimately the narrow way. It is the path of reality.
So what does all this mean? It means that sooner or later you will meet someone who is a living saint and someone who is demonically deluded. You will encounter the uncreated light and the utter darkness of sin. You will encounter the beauty of the divine and the twisted ugliness of evil. You will be drawn to holiness and you will be disgusted by ungodliness. You will love truth and hear lies. You will find peace and you will find spiritual warfare. But there is nothing new under the sun. It means you are in the New Testament church.
This is not a justification of any evil done in or by the Church. This is not to say that it is spiritual to stay in a spiritually damaging or toxic relationship or parish or monastery. This is not a guilt trip if you have decided to leave the Church because you’ve seen the darkness. One of the hardest decisions I ever made was to walk away from my parish. I left because I had encountered the true Church. I was beaten down, tired, and despondent. I didn’t know how long I would be away when I left because I didn’t know how long it would take me or my parish to heal. But I knew there was no place else I could go except into the wilderness. Another parish was not an option for me, I was done in. I wish I could say I did reader’s services at home, fasted, and prayed 10 thousand Jesus prayers a day and read a hundred books while I was gone and that’s what brought me back, but I didn’t. Where I found my hope was in the Ephesian church of Revelation who could identify a false teacher a mile away: I needed to get back to my first love whom I had fallen away from, like they did, in my love for dogma and correctness. I needed, like them, to repent and do the deeds I did when I first fell in love with Christ decades ago. I spent my two years focused on merely being a Christian, like Christ in all circumstances in the present moment. I fell in love with Christ and fallen humanity again. I learned a new renunciation of Satan and ego and judgment in the process. I came to peace with my guilt and with my church. Eventually, I hesitantly went to a service at the beginning of a Lenten season. By the end of the service, I knew my heart was prepared to enter the sanctuary again. The doors of the church opened to me and I saw the Church in its truth, but this time I was neither infatuated nor scandalized. I began attending services, but it took me over a year to fully engage parish life and relationships and be in leadership roles again.
I came up with the idea for this podcast about 5 years ago. I’d been through a lot by then and had seen people leave the church for various reasons, it happens. I thought then that I had some advice to offer. I didn’t know then that I would end up being the poster child for it. I’ve been working on it for a couple years now again and here it is, my random thoughts at this point.
If you’re considering leaving the Church, I guess if I had to distill this down now, this is my best advice:
Find someone who doesn’t speak in memes and platitudes to talk to about it. It may not be someone in a black robe. Find someone who has won wisdom the hard way not just from books.
Find true friends, not just echoes.
Don’t make any sudden moves.
But… Move if you must.
Embrace the wilderness if you enter it. Pray there if you can. If you can’t pray, then just listen.
Find your first love again: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and your neighbor as yourself for this is the Law and the Prophets and the dogma of the Church.
And some day, and you will know that day, knock on the door of the Church if your heart points you toward it, even if it scares you…. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.
And Jesus loves you. Perfectly. This I know, for the Bible tells me so.