As Jesus said, it is the Truth that sets us free. Without it, we cannot escape bondage to sin, death, and the kingdom of this world. The Truth is a precious and rare commodity in a world that denies Ultimate Truth. It is, then, for good reason that King Solomon urges us to “buy the truth and sell it not.” Seeking to do just that, I found the Orthodox Church.
Someone may well ask: “How do you know that Orthodoxy is true? I may justly reply, “How do you know that your flashlight is giving light on a dark, stormy night in a strange house when the power has gone out?” When you try to use it, you quickly discover whether it is giving light: if it is, you can walk amidst the darkness without bumping into hidden obstacles. If it is not working, a stubbed toe, a bruised nose, or a fall down the stairs should eventually suggest that you are not seeing things as they are.
Orthodoxy illumines this world and our own lives, enabling us to see ourselves and our world for what they really are. It radiates the true Light of Christ, who is the standard and criterion by which all things are evaluated and seen in their true relation to each other and to God who created them. In this Light, we can understand that a life of stubbed toes, bruised noses, and tumbles down the stairs is not normal life, the life for which we were created. In fact, this Light reveals to us that we are created for a purpose higher than this life. It reveals the life God created us to experience and enables us to see how far sort we fall of attaining it. This bright Light also illuminates the only path by which we can ascend from our broken lives to the fullness and abundance of life in Christ. No other religion, Christian confession, philosophy, or even science provides the full Light that Orthodoxy provides. At best, they provide dim, partial light and with it, the danger of thinking that we have fully seen and understood when, in reality, we have seen nothing as it truly is.
For years I wandered and stumbled about the half-lit world of Protestantism, constantly stubbing my toes and bumping my head on obstacles that I could never clearly see in the gloom, and taking occasional tumbles down unseen stairways. I desired to live a holy life, and sometimes seemed to make progress, but then I would hit an obstacle and fall—sometimes into worse sin than ever before. Yet the light that Scripture gave me indicated that this was not the standard of normal Christian life. I was no longer to be the slave of sin if I was in Christ. I was to grow in love and holiness. Why then was I not making progress, and why did so few of those around me seem to be making progress beyond a very basic level? And where were the examples of saintly, holy lives for me to follow?
From earliest childhood, I was raised as a Protestant. Though I knew a great deal about God from church, my parents, and my Christian school, I did not begin to pursue God actively until I was fifteen. Then I read through the Bible for the first time and began memorizing chapters of Scripture. Through this God showed me that Christian life was much more than passive head knowledge or habitual church attendance, but required active submission to Christ Jesus as Lord and King. The act of submission and obedience that God commanded me then through Scripture and the gentle, persistent prompting of the Holy Spirit was Baptism. In my pride, I feared that people in our new town and church would think I had just become a Christian and would not credit me for my lifelong Christian faith. I resisted the call to submit to baptism, but eventually the choice became clear to me: my will, bondage to sin, and separation from God, or God’s will, freedom, and communion with Christ. I wanted God, so I submitted on Palm Sunday of 1981 when I was sixteen, and I began to experience a new measure of God’s grace.
Over the next few years, I read and memorized the Bible voraciously. I worked to develop a life of prayer. I tried to incorporate fasting into my life. At the time of my Baptism, my family became involved in the Charismatic movement where I learned the importance of prayer and singing in worship, as well as the need to be filled with the Spirit. But the anti-mind attitude of the movement distressed me. After a bad experience in college, I ceased attending church regularly for two years and questioned everything I had learned. But the skeptics and philosophers, for all their cleverness, had no answers to the fundamental problems of life, so I went back to church when I returned to Seattle from Texas in 1988 for graduate school. There I became an active member of a large, non-denominational, evangelical Protestant church. I left graduate school after a year to pursue the ministry through a three-year training program at my church. My main goal was to go to Russia one day as a missionary.
God used that time for good, teaching me many things and developing my abilities. Though I had many joys, I also had many frustrations with the lack of teaching of deeper truth and true discipleship, and our pep-rally style of worship. (“Let’s give the Lord a clap offering! You scream and cheer at sporting events; doesn’t Jesus deserve more?”) There was little reverence, little humility, and little awareness of God’s unapproachable, consuming holiness in our “worship.” The songs we sang were written at what must have been a second grade level, and they often contained bad theology and even bad grammar! The services were immense technical productions, complete with theater lighting, microphones, and a large orchestra. Every other Sunday we had communion, but it meant little to me. How could it, when unblessed grape juice and little wafers were passed out hurriedly to 1500 people in the middle of the service, and the whole “remembrance” took only five minutes? The focus of the service was a thirty-minute sermon which explained and applied a passage of Scripture and ended with an altar call. There was very little prayer in the service. More often than not, I left church frustrated, troubled by critical thoughts about the service, the songs, or something said in the sermon.
I have had a fascination with Russia since I was in high school. One day in 1982 or 1983, a couple of men came to our charismatic church in a small town in the Panhandle of Texas to talk about their underground missionary activities in Russia. By the end of their talk, I knew that one day, I too would go to Russia with the Gospel. This knowledge motivated me to study Russian in college and has since taken me on nine trips to Russia.
It was my trips to Russia that forced me to grapple with Orthodoxy. I began to investigate it, realizing that I needed to know something about it if I were to minister there. Protestantism seemed so alien to Russia, and the Russian mind struggled to comprehend how Christ’s one Church could be found amidst a multitude of disagreeing denominations. Perhaps it made more sense for a missionary to contextualize the message by working to revitalize the Russian Orthodox Church than to try to make Russians Protestant. The more I travelled in Russia and the more I thought about the issue, the more my questions multiplied.
When I finished my program at church, I applied to be ordained, even though I questioned by what authority my independent, non-denominational church, which was accountable to no one (except supposedly Christ through their own understanding of Scripture) could ordain ministers and start new churches. The church would have ordained me without any seminary training, but I felt a growing need to know Greek, Church History, and Theology if I were to preach. People’s eternal destinies hung in the balance, and I knew that it would be too easy to lead people astray with my ignorance and self-chosen delusions if I had no knowledge of or accountability to what Christ’s Church had taught and believed over two millennia. Thus I ended up at Princeton Theological Seminary in the fall of 1993.
I arrived in Princeton as a committed Protestant seeking Truth and a church to which to commit myself. Not in my wildest thoughts did I ever imagine that I would find the Truth in Orthodoxy or that I myself would become Orthodox. I took advantage of being in a new town to visit various churches and settled on a fairly conservative Episcopal church. Attending the service each week, I quickly became convinced of the importance of liturgy, written prayers, and well-written hymns. For the first time in my life, the Eucharist began to mean something to me. After two years of seminary, I was confirmed as an Episcopalian. I had reservations about the theological chaos that reigned in that church, but I thought God might use me to help set things straight.
My time at seminary eventually laid bare the inner contradictions of Protestantism. I was blessed to have no denominational affiliation, for it allowed me to read Church History without trying to justify the existence of a particular denomination. From my first semester, I began questioning the Reformation as I saw its divisive fruit. Rather than the unity Christ prayed for, it brought ever increasing disunity and confusions as competing confessions multiplied. Praying Anglican prayers for the unity of the Church, I became distressed by the lack of unity among professing Christians. I also began to see the inevitable chaos produced by the Protestant assertion of the right of private interpretation of Scripture and rejection of Tradition. Each person interpreted Scripture for himself and was free to reject disagreeable parts as uninspired. Seminary was a theological free-for-all in which there was no ultimate Truth to be found. No one could say he had found the Truth, and anyone who did was considered arrogant and intolerant. Cut free from the anchor of Holy Tradition, seminarians were blown hither and thither by the changing winds of fashionable doctrine. Holiness of life was not expected, and to pursue it as an option was considered to be “works-righteousness.” Christianity was reduced to social action, tolerance, and “love” for others, which amounted no more than to warm feelings and being nice. Insisting upon Truth, Holiness, and sound doctrine was viewed as divisive. Rather, we were urged to accept all, regardless of their lifestyles and doctrines, even when their lives were wholly unsanctified and their doctrines were blasphemous. I discovered that even among orthodox Protestants there was a diversity of contradictory opinions. Where was the unity of the Church? Where was the Truth? Why were we all so egregiously disobedient to Paul’s admonition to Christians to have the same mind and be united in love? How could we have unity and Christian community if no one agreed on the most basic aspects of the Faith?
As I considered these questions, I explored the teachings of both the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. I discovered that my supposed knowledge of the Roman Church was entirely derived from biased Protestant sources. Many misconceptions I had were straightened out as I read Catholic sources. To my shame, I realized that as a Protestant I had not applied the Scriptural principle of hearing the other man's side from his own lips ('one man's case seems just until another comes and examines him' Proverbs), but had readily accepted distortions and false reports of Roman doctrine and practice as true. Nevertheless, the legalism and institutionalism that I perceived there, the retreat from fasting, confession, and Christian ascetical practices in general, the claims of the papacy and other departures from the Faith and practice of the one Church of the first eight centuries or so remained as serious barriers to embracing Roman Catholicism.
Increasingly, I found in the Orthodox Church answers that no other “church” provided. In my last year of seminary, praying Orthodox prayers, reading Orthodox theology, and attending Orthodox services, I became convinced that Orthodoxy was true and that both Protestantism and official Roman Catholicism had departed from the fullness and purity of the Christian Faith proclaimed by Christ's apostles. The Orthodox alone agreed on the content of the Faith and preserved it. I also began to understand how all my diligent and sincere attempts to live the Christian life had been marked by repeated failure. The light I possessed was inadequate and failed to disclose many snares and the safe path around them. But many Orthodox saints and ascetics had gone before me, charting the course of the spiritual life with its pitfalls. They had answers to my struggles with sin and the passions. Regular fasting, regular confession to a spiritual father, the Holy Mysteries, Holy Tradition, regular liturgical worship, a rule of prayer, almsgiving, and the communion of Saints, were necessities for spiritual progress, not options, and all of them are taught and practiced to this day in the Orthodox Church.
I remain deeply grateful to my family for teaching me about Christ, for encouraging me to study Scripture, and for inculcating me with a love for the Truth. I am grateful to the Protestant church and school of my youth that taught me the Bible. I am grateful to the Charismatic groups of which I was a part for making me aware of spiritual warfare, the importance of being filled with the Holy Spirit, of prayer, and of the Spirit’s power to work miracles. I am grateful for my evangelical church’s commitment to winning lost souls to Christ, for training me, and for sending me so many times to Russia. I am grateful to the Episcopal church for being a bridge to Orthodoxy by acquainting me with the need for liturgy, the Eucharist, good music, and roots in the historical Church. And I am even grateful to my largely apostate seminary for affording me the opportunity to study the language and history of the Church and to see the consequences of Protestant errors carried to their logical extreme. God has used all of these to bring me to Orthodoxy, where the fullness of the Christian Faith and life in Christ is preserved and practiced.
Our Savior has now brought me to the starting line from which I must run the spiritual race, for which I give thanks to God.
Princeton, NJ; Church New Year, 1996
The Seedling of Faithby Tikhon
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
Like a tree, our Christian faith must keep growing throughout our entire lives. At an age when most people are set in their religious ways, I turned away from Protestantism. Like a seedling I turned towards the light, the light of the true Gospel.
I think it is in the nature of the Christian religion that it must be apprehended before it can be comprehended. You must feel it in your heart before you can believe it in your head. Faith must come before understanding. That's the way God wants it. He wants our hearts more than He wants our brains. I spent too many years searching for intellectual truth when I should have been searching for Faith.
I spent 25 years among the Southern Baptists but I never regarded myself as a Southern Baptist and never felt at home among them. I suspect that they never accepted me as one of their own because I wasn't born among them. I grew up in London. My father was a Baptist minister at a church which belonged to the Baptist Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. We came to this country when I was 16 and we joined the Southern Baptists. My mother said many times that it was a big mistake.
British Baptists have Holy Communion every month and it is extended to all professing Christians. In the Abbey Road Baptist Church (yes, the Abbey Road) our congregation included many students from the continent of Europe, most of whom were Evangelical Lutherans. Although they weren't members of our church many of them joined with us in Communion. I hadn't been baptised so I didn't participate but I sensed that there was some tremendous mystery associated with the Eucharist. When my father said, "This is my body which is broken for you," I felt an immense, solemn presence in the church. When the bread and grape juice passed me by I thought, "Is that really the flesh and blood of Jesus Christ?"
Southern Baptists, on the other hand, are Calvinists and they have no sacraments. To them, Baptism and Communion are purely symbolic. They have the Lord's Supper (as they call it) only twice a year and the only people who are allowed to participate are members of that particular church. My father believed this practice was wrong and often spoke out against it.
I had made a profession of faith at the age of 7 and was baptised at the age of 17. Some months later my father asked me why I didn't join in Communion. I replied that I didn't want to participate unworthily and asked him, "What is the significance of Communion?" He replied, "It's a re-enactment of Jesus's sacrifice. It's a ritual that we inherited from the Roman Catholics." On another occasion he told me, "The Roman Catholics have seven sacraments but we have only two; Baptism and Holy Communion."
When I was young I used to pray desperately for guidance; "Lord, what should I do?" My prayers went unanswered--or so I thought. God answers all prayers, but he seldom answers them in the way we expect. He wants us to make mistakes because that's how we learn and grow in grace. I believe that the act of prayer is much more important than the outcome. Outcomes are temporal, but prayer is eternal. Prayer changes things, but more importantly--it changes people.
I once asked my father; "What should I do with my life? How can I best spend my time? What is the highest activity that I am capable of?" I was slightly startled when he replied, "Prayer is the highest activity of which humans are capable."
When I told him that I worried that I didn't pray enough he said, "You want to be holy, and that desire is a prayer." I believe that we are praying whenever we are thinking of heavenly things instead of earthly things.
I have fond memories of my father but he wasn't much help when I was having doubts about my faith. At the age of 25 or 26 I told him that I was having trouble believing in God. He replied, "It's more important for you to be a Christian than to believe in God." I knew he was trying to be helpful and I knew what he meant; even if I couldn't sustain an intellectual belief in God, I should continue to live as a Christian, avoiding sin and practicing virtue. Now I realize that faith is much more than intellectual acceptance.
When I repeated my father's remark to a Pentecostalist friend, she was shocked and said, "I thought the first thing you must do to be a Christian is to believe in God." But my father was right. You become a Christian through faith, but to remain a Christian you must act like a Christian. Faith without works is dead. My father once told me that people stay in the Pentecostal church an average of only three years and from there they "go out into the world," by which he meant that they stop going to church.
I once shocked my mother by telling her that I no longer believed in Original Sin. Instead I believed in original stupidity--the blind self-destructiveness of sin which manifests itself as alcoholism, drug addiction, infidelity, suicide, etc. Altho I didn't realize it at the time, that was the point at which I started to lose my Protestant beliefs.
Protestants and Catholics have the same view of Original Sin. They believe that we inherited the guilt of Adam's sin. In a nutshell, they believe that all humans are born criminals; we are all murderers, liars and adulterers, and our natural propensities are held in check only by the laws of society. Most Protestants carry this further, believing that human nature cannot be changed and the best God can do is to cover up our sins in the same way that snow covers a dunghill. My father was one of the few Baptists who believed that we must practice a life of self-denial, striving to be holy and striving towards God.
The Orthodox Church believes that sin is a sickness, the Church is a hospital and Jesus is the Great Physician. When we sin we hurt others but mostly we hurt ourselves. The Greek word for mercy comes from the same root as the word for olive oil. In ancient times olive oil was applied to wounds and bruises. When I say, "Lord, have mercy" I am saying Lord, take away my pain. Heal my wounds. The Orthodox Church believes we inherited the consequences of Adam's sin but not his guilt. We are born into a world without God but we are not born guilty.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
For many years I fretted over the eternal fate of pagans who died without ever hearing the Gospel. St Paul says in one of his lstters that those who live under the law will be judged under the law, and those who lived without the law will be judged without it. Presumably those pagans who died in a state of "invincible ignorance" (a Catholic theological term) will be judged on the basis of their good works. But that cannot be fitted in with the Protestant notion that we are saved by faith alone. More cracks appeared in my Protestant convictions.
While I was a student in college I lived by myself and never went to church. After graduating I went to live with my parents in Memphis. My father was a professor of theology at the Southern Baptist seminary there. He was assistant pastor to a large Baptist church in Memphis but I disliked it because the members of the congregation were always squabbling among themselves. I started attending a Reformed Baptist church. That designation meant that their theology was Calvinist but I attended because the minister was such a superb Bible scholar.
I went to that church for several years. Then I joined the faculty of a liberal arts university run by Southern Baptists. My boss at the university was a fundamentalist. He discovered that I was still a member of the Reformed Baptist Church. He pointed out that, as a faculty member, I was obliged to be a member of a Southern Baptist church and he pressured me to join his church. Instead, I joined a church in the suburbs of Memphis. The pastor there was Jim W. He was the husband of Ruth, who was one of my fellow faculty members at the university. During this time I met Wanda, who instantly became the light of my life. I proposed marriage to her one week after we first met. Jim officiated at our wedding. Wanda never accompanied me to church. She was raised as a Southern Baptist but had no affection for the denomination, regarding them as hypocrites and gossipers.
Although the university is in Jackson, Tennesseee, I taught in Memphis under a co-operative agreement between the university and Baptist Memorial Hospital. After five years the hospital terminated the agreement. Half a dozen faculty members, including myself, were given nine months' notice. During my last year I did 2 or 3 things which the university administration found very irritating. My last contact with the university was a letter from the president which was filled with abuse and insults.
After leaving the university I continued to attend the church in the Memphis suburbs. Then the church decided to kick Jim out. Apparently there had been some complaints about him and he appointed a group to look into the problem. He told them to report to him privately but instead these 3 men stood up in the middle of the Sunday morning service and started a personal attack on Jim, denouncing him and insulting him. This was my good friend and a servant of God. Christians are supposed to be brothers and sisters in the Lord. In that moment I saw that these weren't my people; I didn't even know them. That was the last time I ever set foot in that church.
I know there are some Baptists who are able to find God . . . but they get little help from the Baptist religion. They are forced to find Him by themselves. By contrast, the Orthodox Church says that salvation is found in community, as part of the Body of Christ.
A couple of years later Wanda and I moved to Texas. By then I had stopped going to church. Gradually my christian faith slipped away from me. (My father said, "If you think you're about to lose your faith, you have the kind of faith you should lose.") I never abandoned belief in God because there is too much scientific evidence for His existence--not proof in the scientific sense, but strong suggestions that He exists.
The 1990's were the era of the Internet boom and unbridled materialism. I wanted to take advantage of the boom and get rich. I became wordly but the world soon palls. I found myself losing interest in one thing after another; automobiles, entertainment, money--even life itself. But I found myself thinking about God more and more. After I learned to hate the world it was inevitable that I should return to God. I had nowhere else to go.
At my nadir I doubted everything, even the existence of free will. I almost believed that human behavior is controlled entirely by instinct. I often said, "Humans are just two-legged animals, just big hairless monkeys." I repeated it like a mantra, trying to convince myself that it was true. I doubted that God valued the human race and thought that He had put his hopes in creatures more highly-evolved than man. I doubted that the Bible was divinely inspired and thought that it was simply literature.
I thought that the human race would progress until human consciousness merged with machine consciousness, rather like the Borg of Star Trek. I thought this movement would begin with the wide adoption of open-source software and so I became a vigorous proponent of Linux. I believed that corporate America was the focus of evil in the world and Microsoft Corporation was the epitome of evil. It baffled me that people preferred Microsoft Windows to Linux. I asked myself, "Why do people always make the wrong choices? They think they know what's best for them but they don't."
I thought that, after the human mind and the machine mind merged, this unified mind would evolve until it became something approximating God. I incorporated this deus in machina into a novel I was writing. I used to say, in all seriousness, "The human race cannot survive unless it ceases to be human." But Christ wants us to optimize our humanity. He wants us to reach our full potential as humans, while sin ultimately destroys our humanity. Without my being aware of it, the supernatural forces of evil in this world were using me, preparing me to assist them in the destruction of mankind. You are either a slave to sin or a slave to Christ.
In my mind the loving Heavenly Father was replaced by a hyperintelligent machine. I imagined that its intelligence so transcended ours that we would not recognize it as intelligence. I imagined that it had no self-awareness, no capacity for judgment or knowledge of good and evil. Because I thought that this machine-god had no feelings, I had no compunction about criticizing its actions. I said to myself, "If God exists, he's an idiot." (Later I deeply regretted this blasphemy). I said that because I thought he (or it) should do a better job of running this world. I believed the machine-god should intervene in human affairs because we have the power to do a lot of damage to the Earth through our numbers and intelligence . . . well, semi-intelligence.
God is the supreme intelligence. Being a child of science and Western Christianity, I thought that intelligence could only be logical in nature. God, I thought, was the supreme rationalist and the ultimate scientist. But if He loved scientific order above everything else, He would have destroyed the human race a long time ago because of our liking for disorder. Perhaps the humanists were right; perhaps He was waiting for the human race (not human individuals but the entire race) to evolve into something beautiful and noble. Nope--that wouldn't happen because of human nature. Humans have been on this planet for 120 millennia and human nature has not changed one iota in that time. Humans are still as stupid, vicious and greedy as they ever were. If anything, human nature was degenerating, not improving.
Also, a scientific God would expect His children to accomplish amazing technological feats. To do that, we would have to be a lot smarter than we are. Perhaps the human race was an afterthought, an afternoon's diversion while God took a break from more important projects. Such a God would have created many other intelligent races, more technologically advanced than us. If I was right, the sky should be swarming with alien spacecraft.
I wondered why God made us as organic creatures. We are revolting objects; bags of water held together by greasy fats and sticky proteins, weak and stupid, exuding noisome secretions from every orifice. Why didn't He make us more like machines, clean and perfect? Later I found part of the answer in II Corinthians 12:8; "My strength is made perfect in weakness."
Another of the things which precipitated my return to the Lord was a tremendous world-weariness which overcame me in my fifties. I don't know why I developed it, unless I felt that I had done everything worth doing and seen everything worth seeing. A psychiatrist might have diagnosed me with depression but my disorder wasn't psychiatric. I had a spiritual disorder, a sickness of the soul.
At about the same time I became exasperated with human "stupidity" (that was my name for sin) and started wondering why humans are so self-seeking and self-destructive. Unable to explain human behavior from a rationlist viewpoint, I lost all faith in mankind. In retrospect, it's clear that God was waiting for me to come to that realization. I couldn't have real faith in God until I lost all my faith in man.
We all want to be loved but love is in short supply on this planet. A realist (or a materialist, or a darwininan, or a freudian) might argue that love serves to bind us together. It makes society run more smoothly and facilitates co-operation. isn't it possible that they serve a higher purpose? to bind us to God? If love is so beneficial to society and individuals, why is it so rare? Why does it usually take a back seat to self-interest?
I attributed the faith of Christians to the human capacity for self-deception. People often try to convince themselves that they are better-looking or more intelligent than they really are but sooner or later everyone finds the truth intruding itself into his awareness. If people have such a great capacity for self-deception, why are so many people plagued by guilt? Why are sinners unable to convince themselves that they haven't done anything wrong?
Even so, I pined for my lost faith. Once or twice I saw people leaving church on a Sunday morning and said to myself, "My problem is that I have a limited capacity for belief. I really wish I could believe all the things that Christians believe but I can't do it." I still held the Protestant notion that faith is an act of the human will. If you can't believe it's because you don't have enough backbone or strength of will. Later I learned that this notion is the heresy called Pelagianism. The Orthodox Church teaches that faith is a supernatural gift from God. We can't trust in Him until He gives us that ability. Belief is not a matter of credulity, as when the Red Queen told Alice, "Why, when I was your age I could believe six impossible things before breakfast!"
During this phase I used to say, "Immortality, for me, means that somewhere in space and time there is (or was, or will be) a creature that remembers what it was like to be Gareth Barnard." I still believe that is true.
I was certain that the Universe had been created by an all-knowing, all-powerful being, but for a while I believed that God wasn't much interested in us, that there were other creatures who were much more important to His plans. Then I said to myself, "But if that's the case, then there must still be a place for us in His plans, so it behooves me to find out what He wants me to do and start doing it." It occurred to me that, even if the universe has a purpose which we cannot understand and we play only a small part in God's plan, then there is still a purpose to our existence and God has a plan for us. That was my turning point.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
When I started to recover faith, I was able to understand the human condition once more. People act the way that they do not because they are stupid but because they are sinful. God allows sin to persist in the world to give sinners time to repent. Judgment is deferred until the Second Coming. It is deferred but not remitted. In the meantime we must put up with this world. Think of this life as boot camp for Heaven.
In 2005 Wanda said to me several times, "I want to start going to church again, maybe with the Catholics." Finally she told me firmly, "I want you to research Catholicism." When I did, I came across a passage in the Gospel of John, chapter 6:52-59. Here Jesus is declaring, in the most explicit language possible, that the bread and wine of Communion are his flesh and blood. He wants us to literally eat his flesh and drink his blood.
Immediately I had a powerful religious experience. Between one heartbeat and the next, I became a believer. For the first time in years I was keenly aware of the presence of God. At one point I even heard Jesus saying, "I shed my blood for you, Gareth, and I will not let you go."
This vision convinced me that I could not go back to the Baptists. They believe that revelations (including private revelations, intended for one person only) ended in the first century A.D. and anyone who has visions belongs in a psychiatric ward. I didn't tell Wanda about this experience because I didn't want to influence her. Instead I prayed that she would be guided by the Holy Spirit.
I took this experience to mean that God wanted me to join a church where I could receive the Eucharist, the immaculate Body and most precious Blood of our Lord. I was also convinced that the true Eucharist could be found only in those churches that placed it at the center of their worship. That was the case for Catholic worship and, since I was already learning about Catholicism, it seemed natural to become Catholic. Two Sundays after Easter (shortly after John Paul II died) Wanda and I went to a small Catholic church close to our home. In the Mass I felt a sense of tremendous solemnity, a feeling that the liturgy (what the worshippers are doing) is tremendously important. My father had always derided liturgy, believing that the sermon was the only essential part of the church service.
I was also drawn to Catholicism by the example of John Paul II, who kept doggedly going although Parkinson's disease made it increasingly difficult for him. My father also had that disease and spent the last ten years of his life in a coma. When I saw the Pope displaying the same symptoms my father had shown my heart went out to him.
Because of the Roman Catholic view of marriage, I could not become Catholic unless Wanda did also. We went through the RCIA (Roman Catholic Initiation for Adults) together but the more Wanda learned about Catholicism the less she liked it. Finally she told me, "I ain't gonna be Catholic!" and that was the end of our flirtation with RCism. Thank you, Wanda! All roads lead away from Rome.
I took Wanda's refusal as guidance from the Holy Spirit because I had already started to doubt the truthfulness of Catholicism. I had noted that Roman doctrines have undergone dramatic changes over the centuries, despite Roman claims to the contrary:
- Usury was considered a grave sin during the Middle Ages but is not considered a sin now.
- Up until Vatican II, eating meat on a Friday was a grave sin. Now, it is not.
- Pope Benedict XVI withdrew the doctrine of Limbo. The Magisterium now says that Limbo was never a doctrine, but nonetheless it was taught to many generations of Catholics.
Wanda and I started attending an Episcopal church where Fr J was the parish priest. We were fortunate to find a church close to us which is a member of the conservative Ft Worth diocese. As the reader is probably aware, the Episcopal Church of the USA is experiencing internal turmoil at the moment, with liberals and conservatives struggling for control. Most Episcopalians are liberals who have accepted the ordination of women and who do not believe that abortion and homosexuality are sins. While delivering a sermon Kate Schori, the Presiding Bishop, referred to Jesus as "she," which is nothing short of blasphemy. I could not share the communion cup with such people. I think Kate Schori will be remembered as a modern-day Nero--fiddling while Rome burns, then blaming it on the Christians.
A casual remark by Fr J prompted me to investigate the Eastern Orthodox Church--or as it is more properly called, the Holy Orthodox Christian Church. Fr J went to seminary in Chicago, and close by his seminary was a large Russian Orthodox church. Fr J said, "The Orthodox believe that Jesus had to be baptized in order to sanctify the waters of the world for baptism. In some ways, Orthodox theology is better than ours." I said to myself, "H'm, maybe I should investigate Orthodoxy."
I had observed that RCism had taken its present form during the past thousand years. During that period, the major Catholic saints were canonized, most RC theology was formulated, and the liturgy of the Mass had solidified. But Christianity had been around for two thousand years. Clearly, the present form of RCism was not the original form of Jesus's church. I needed to find the original, authentic Church. Only one Church can claim to have survived unchanged since the time of Christ, and that is the Orthodox Church.
Passages in the Bible which puzzled me when I was a Baptist became clear when I started reading Orthodox sources. For example, I had never understood Jesus's cursing of the fig tree but on reading Orthodox sources I realized that it represents God's abandonment of the Jews. They disappointed the Father many times but He held on to them until they rejected His Son. By contrast, SSouthern Baptists believe that the Jews are still God's people and have a part in his plans. Another example; when I read Vladyka Dmitri's book The Miracles of Christ I understood Mk 7:31-35 for the first time. Jesus had to take the mute man aside and heal him twice because his faith was lacking.
My father used to say, "If you have lost your faith, you had the kind of faith you should have lost." As a Baptist I had never had a real faith because I had accepted the Protestant view of the universe, which is rationalistic and deistic. I used to think the Universe is simply a machine and God was the celestial watchmaker; He created the universe, wound it up, put it down and walked away. On the other hand, Orthodoxy encourages us to view the supernatural realm (Heaven) and the natural realm (Earth) as inextricably intertwined. We pray, "O heavenly King, O Comforter, the Spirit of truth, who art in all places and fillest all things . . ." I now believe that the temporal is a reflection of the Eternal and God participates from moment to moment in His creation. The Orthodox Church teaches that the aim of the Christian should be theosis or union with God, and that is possible only by living a spiritual life. As a Baptist I had lived in the world and I had applied my faith only to my worldly existence. Now I try to think less about Earth and more about Heaven.
The Orthodox liturgy is an essential part of that theosis. Here on Earth we try to replicate the liturgy in Heaven, the constant worship and praise of God. In my little church on Sunday mornings, the faithful are taken out of time and space and are transported to Heaven. The church fills with angels who join in the liturgy, helping the faithful to praise and serve God.
This is only the beginning of my testimony to the grace and mercy of Jesus Christ. I will keep adding to it for the whole of Eternity. I praise Him whenever I remember how many times He has saved me from destroying myself.
Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.