Faith: What does it mean to be Orthodox (part 10)

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For more information on the Eastern Orthodox mission in Alaska, see the excellent book by Michael Oleksa, Orthodox Alaska

In several columns I have attempted to provide a view of Church history spanning the versions of Reader’s Digest, which we receive too often.

The end result has been less of a panorama than a few keyholes chosen from the past, which I hope will open new doors to understanding Christianity and more specifically, Eastern Orthodoxy.

We could say a lot more. This series, in fact, could expand for many years to come.

The history of the early church can and does consume entire books. 1,100 years of Byzantine history fill the shelves. The history of Russia and other Slavic nations occupies armies of scholars.

And I barely touched on the wide range of subjects of Eastern Orthodox theology and spirituality, from iconography to monasticism, from Jesus’ prayer to

Divine Liturgy.

I have decided to leave the details of the above topics to those who can do them a little more justice.

For example, an overview of the history and teaching of the Orthodox Church can be found in Timothy Ware’s book The Orthodox Church, which is both authoritative and accessible to the non-learned reader.

I would like to end this series on a personal note: how did I become an Eastern Orthodox Christian?

What was there about this rather strange faith that originally attracted me and now commands my dedication and service?

A personal history of my religious background is in order. I was born in Seychelles to a Roman Catholic mother and an Anglican father. At the insistence of my mother’s parents, I was baptized Roman Catholic.

In 1979 we left Seychelles and spent the next 10 years living in East and Southern Africa. During this period, my religious experiences were more Protestant than Catholic.

My father would take my sister and I to Sunday school in any denomination that suited them, and pick us up afterwards.

1989 saw us immigrate to Canada. Then, in my early teens, I tended towards spiritual rebellion.

My father, however, insisted that I be confirmed Anglican, in the tradition of his family.

Then, he said, I could do whatever I wanted. I nodded reluctantly. After Confirmation, I gave up Christianity and sought the dubious pleasures of a purely secular and hedonistic lifestyle.

By the providence of God, however, I was a very bad hedonist.

Having failed to lead a dissolute life, I found myself in an emotional and spiritual crisis. At the time, I was working for a couple of Evangelical Protestants.

They had been trying to get me to become a Christian for a while, but it wasn’t until I “hit rock bottom” that I finally paid attention to their message: “God loves you.” Otherwise, he would not have sent his Son to die for you.

I dedicated my life to Christ from then on. I wandered around evangelical circles for a while, but I was uncomfortable with hyper-emotivity.

Eventually I rediscovered my roots and joined the Anglican community of St. John’s in Shaughnessy, Vancouver. It was then that I met the Orthodox Church.

One evening in 1993 I was at a poetry reading in Vancouver and met a young man who (like me) was an aspiring poet and was taking a BA in English Literature at the University of British Columbia. He invited me and my friends to his church: Saint Herman Alaskan Orthodox Church in Langley.

My first experiences with orthodoxy were strange.

There were no drums, bass, guitar, or piano; worship was sung in a cappella harmony. Each service was lit by candles and scented with incense.

And most disturbing of all, fellowship was limited to those who were members of the Orthodox Church.

I struggled for months with this all or nothing mentality.

I was interested in the cult, which claimed to derive from the first century, but I was not sure I wanted to make the necessary commitment to participate.

Ultimately, unable to accept the Catholic doctrine of papal infallibility, I had to decide whether the intense and strange Orthodox Church was a strange cult, or the true spiritual home I dreamed of.

Considering the importance of the decision, I was rather impulsive.

I have only read one book on orthodoxy (and not a very good one at that). I have listened to the testimony of my best friend (who became Orthodox before me) and the loving attitude of the St. Herman community.

I attended more services, got used to the strangeness, and fell in love with the dignity and beauty of Orthodox worship.

I asked questions, thought about the answers and found them acceptable. I made the commitment.

In fact, I took the right approach because Eastern Orthodoxy is best encountered through direct experience with worship and fellowship.

Newspaper articles are useful as far as they go, but Christianity is less of a text (as central as the text of the Bible is) than the person of Jesus Christ crucified and risen from the dead.

Encountering Eastern Orthodoxy is also a personal matter, which simply means meeting and praying with Orthodox Christians in order to grow in understanding of the community. If you are curious about what this little-known faith has to offer, the best thing to do is follow the advice that the apostle Philip gave to his friend Nathanael: “Come and see!

(John 1:46).


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