Last month I requested help from readers in supporting a revision of the Glory to God for All Things blogsite. The response was deeply encouraging (I’ve sent some notes of thanks). The work is beginning to mature and I hope to see something new up on the site in a couple of weeks. Thank you all for your prayers and encouragement. The community that exists around these writings and the conversations they engender is one of the deepest blessings in my life. I hope the new work will be a true improvement – making the site itself easier to use. I am finishing work on a catalog system that will make sorting through the nearly 1500 articles easier. It is staggering to see what the near 6 years of work has produced. May God grant it His continued blessing!
Archive for July, 2012
Today is the patronal feast of my parish, St. Anne. St. Anne (Anna) was the wife of St. Joachim. Joachim and Anna were the parents of the Virgin Mary, according to the early tradition of the Church. In Orthodox commemorations they are referred to as the “ancestors of God.” It is a shocking title, perhaps even more shocking than Mary’s “Mother of God.” Christmas devotion has accustomed many Christians to think about Christ as a child and thus as a child with parents. But the popular imagination generally stops there. We forget the fullness of what it means to be human (perhaps because we ourselves live in a world in which our own humanity is severely truncated).
St. Joachim was a priest who served in the temple. His wife, St. Anne, was unable to have children and elderly (a very familiar story in the pages of Scripture). The child Mary is a gift to them in their old age, a joyful intervention in their lives. The tradition goes on to tell how the couple present their young daughter for service in the temple (the Entrance of the Theotokos into the Temple). This feast, far more than a sentimental remembrance of a special day in the life of a young girl, is a feast of dynamic irony. The child who will become the true temple and ark of God when she conceives Christ, enters the temple which had been described as “Ichabod,” (“devoid of glory”). The temple that had once been filled with the glory of God stood empty. The ark had been carried away, the glory faded to memory. The child who enters appears insignificant, but is herself the fulfillment of the temple itself. She is the true Temple, the true Ark. The glory of God that will reside in her womb is none other than God Himself.
Orthodox devotion to the Mother of God and to the Ancestors of God, is a devotion born of Divine irony. The very phrase “God/Man” is the height of oxymoronic irony. How can a man be God? How can God be a man? It is the very heart of the Christian faith and a scandal to many.
The same irony is the true revelation of God’s great love of man, and the foundation of human dignity. Only the incarnation of Christ protects humanity from destruction in the face of the Absolute. God, when considered as a cypher for the Absolute, will brook no rival, no diminution of His complete sovereignty. In the name of such an abstraction, human beings are all too easily swept away. We are less than dust and without value. No concept ever entertained by man is more dangerous than the concept of God.
The Christian faith has no conception of God. God is not an idea. The Christian faith begins with a man, Jesus of Nazareth. It confesses this man to be both fully God and fully man and that through Him and through Him alone is knowledge of God possible.
No man has seen God at any time. The Only-Begotten Son who is in the bosom of the Father, He has made Him known (John 1:18).
Thus Christianity does not know a God who is revealed apart from man. It is the condescension of God, His meekness and humility that we see in Christ. We also see His great mercy towards mankind that He should raise us up and exalt us and bless us uniquely as sons and daughters. The dignity (worth) of human beings is guaranteed by this reality alone. Human rights, as the world now knows them, did not exist except through the foundational understanding of human persons made known in the revelation of Christ. The revelation of God in Christ not only makes it possible for us to know God but also makes it possible for us to approach in safety the throne of His glory. Ideas and abstractions offer no such thing.
And so the Orthodox Church embraces the wonderful paradox and irony of God: that God should become a man; that a woman should be the Mother of God; that an older couple can be called the ‘ancestors of God’; that we should be fellow-heirs with Christ. Anything less is not Christianity. Anything less is simply a dangerous idea.
Greetings on the feast!
Any parent who has raised a child has witnessed the miracle of human language. Even children with handicaps find ways to communicate except in the most extreme circumstance. The genius of language is not something we learn – it is instinctual for human beings. Those who study linguistics and neurobiology recognize that we have an instinct for grammar – not the polite rules of a high school English class – but the deep structures that make language work – any language. Children born into situations of “proto-languages” such as the accidental “pidgin” of occasional ethnic mixes – take that most rudimentary speech and generate a “creole” (a new language born of such pidgins) within a single generation. They are not taught this language – they invent it, complete with a grammatical structure they are not taught by a previous generation.
The Scriptures tell the story of humanity with a profound sense of language. The first action of God is speech: “Let there be light!” God does not teach man to speak – we can only assume from the Biblical story that humanity and speech exist together from the beginning. God brings the animals to Adam, “to see what he would name them.” Animals could not exist within the human world and not be named. This is not because there is something inherently “nameable” about animals – rather it is human beings who must name. I say that we must name, because it is an instinct: theologically, it belongs to our nature. We do not think and then speak: thought and language are common.
Our drive to speak is more than a matter of language. The “grammar” that is instinctual to us marks all that we do. Human beings have an inherent sense of structure about everything around them. That structural sense is manifest in how we treat numbers, how we treat art, how we treat everything in the world. Our speech has a grammar and everything around us, everything that human beings perceive, has a grammar. This grammatical approach to the world is far more descriptive of human behavior than words such as reasonable or rational. People do with the world what they do with words. [For an interesting theological reflection on doctrine as the grammar of theology, see George Lindbeck’s The Nature of Doctrine.]
It is our behavior with words that perhaps best illustrates what it means to say that we are logikos. Even an abridged Greek-English dictionary will give a seemingly endless list of English words with which one might translate logos, the root of logikos. Most commonly, St. John’s prologue is rendered, “In the beginning was the Word [Logos].” The root meaning of logos is certainly “word” (lego “to speak”). But it is within the larger context of human beings as speakers, the instinctive grammarians of the universe, that logos finds its greater meaning. Some within the tradition have said that human beings exist in the image of God, inasmuch as we are “rational” (“rational” being yet another way to translate logikos). The result is the imagining of human beings as calculators. It is more accurate to speak of rationality as the perception that things have a grammar, a discernible structure that is susceptible to description and understanding.
Human beings have a natural passion (perhaps eros would be the better word) to explain things. We read the world and speak it in turn. We speak things and want to make them. When words fail we do not abandon our passion, but pursue the instinct beyond the bounds of formal language. We have learned (and invented) the grammar of numbers and science. With number and symbol we describe the relationships and structure of the sub-atomic universe. In relationship with God we dare to speak His name and to speak of person and substance, essence and energy, Trinity and transcendence. We have found no greater or more complete statement of icons than that “they do with color what the gospels do with words.”
And so, we are rightly described as logikos. It is not simply that we offer words to God, for words are only one manifestation of our logicity. We have been told (!) that we are created in God’s image. He who created heaven and earth is imaged in those who reach for the very structure of that same universe. He offers the word, “Let there be,” and we respond, returning the praise (logikos latreia) with what that Word has made.
We cannot imagine human existence without our logikos way of being. We are not logical (this word is a caricature of the Greek). But we cannot resist the urge to explain, to understand, to connect and see beyond and behind those things that appear. Even when our explanations are wrong we cannot accept no explanation.
As noted above, there are limits to speech. The Church’s understanding of God asserts above all else that God transcends our ability to know or speak. At its heart, true theology is apophatic (without speech). But the Church does not teach that God is aphatic (against speech). That which is made known to us in the Incarnation of Christ is God the Logos. Even when we cannot speak God, we can know Him. And the God whom we know sounds an echo within our very being.
And so the Church hymns believers as God’s “rational sheep” (logiki provati). It is a title of honor. The sheep return the honor by recognizing the Logos in all He has made (“all things were made by Him and without Him not anything was made”). We hear the song of creation and the voice of its groaning. We hear rocks sing and the harmonies of sub-atomic particles. And in the sound and grammar of all these things we hear the Word of God and sing to Him, his rational sheep.
Fr. Pavel Florensky
In thinking about darkness and light – and their role in our apprehension of the truth – I cannot but think about Beauty, which is a primary place in which the light of God is made manifest among us (if rightly perceived). The heart that is full of darkness cannot truly perceive beauty: the heart which is full of light, cannot help but perceive it. Perhaps a measure of our heart can be found in how we perceive the world around us: is it primarily a place of beauty or darkness? It is difficult in the fallen world to maintain a witness to beauty. And yet those places where it is made manifest to us are so poignant, so piercing, that I think we cannot and should not remain silent about them. Perhaps they should be shouted from the rooftops! This article is a meditation on beauty and its role in our lives within the Kingdom of God.
The quote from Pavel Florensky contains a world of truth, indeed, from a certain perspective it contains the whole of the Gospel. It is both commentary on how we see the world (as beautiful or ugly) or how we are within ourselves. The ugliness of sin is one of its most important components – and the inability to distinguish between the truly beautiful and the false beauty of so much of contemporary life offers a profound diagnosis of our lives and culture.
To say that God is beautiful carries insights into what we mean by knowledge of God. “How do we know God?” is one question. But if we ask the question, “How do we recognize Beauty?” then we have also shifted the ground from questions of intellect or pure rationality and onto grounds of aethetics and relationship (communion). The recognition of beauty is a universal experience (as is the misperception of beauty). But the capacity to recognize beauty points as well to a capacity within us to know God (if Florensky is right). I would offer that this capacity is itself a gift of grace – particularly when we admit that the recognition of beauty is subject to delusion.
In a famous passage from The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky’s Dmitri Karamazov has this to say on beauty as well as delusion:
Beauty is a terrible and awful thing! It is terrible because it has not been fathomed and never can be fathomed, for God sets us nothing but an enigma. Here the boundaries meet and all contradictions exist side by side. I am not a cultivated man, brother, but I’ve thought a lot about this. It’s terrible what mysteries there are! Too many mysteries weigh men down on earth. We must solve them as we can, and try to keep a dry skin in the water. Beauty! I can’t endure the thought that a man of lofty mind and heart begins with the ideal of the Theotokos (Madonna) and ends with the ideal of Sodom. What’s still more awful is that a man with the ideal of Sodom in his soul does not renounce the ideal of the Madonna, and his heart may be on fire with that ideal, genuinely on fire, just as in his days of youth and innocence. Yes, man is broad, too broad, indeed. I’d have him narrower. The devil only knows what to make of it! What to the mind is shameful is beauty and nothing else to the heart. Is there beauty in Sodom? Believe me, that for the immense mass of mankind beauty is found in Sodom. Did you know that secret? The awful thing is that beauty is mysterious as well as terrible. God and the devil are fighting there and the battlefield is the heart of man.”
Dostoevsky’s paradox, that “beauty,” for the mass of mankind, is found in Sodom, is a paradox that can hold two meanings. Either it can mean that even the corrupted “beauty” of Sodom can be redeemed (this is not Dostoevsky’s own intention) or that our heart can be so corrupted that we perceive the things of Sodom to be beautiful (closer to Dostoevsky’s point). We can also bring in a third – that of Florensky quoted above – that the “beauty” found in Sodom is corrupted precisely because it is turned away from God. It’s repentance can also be its restoration of true beauty.
I prefer this third thought (which is more or less the same as the first) in that it carries within it the reminder that when God created the world He said, “It is good or beautiful” – both the Hebrew and the Greek of Genesis carry this double meaning.
We were created to perceive the Beautiful, even to pursue it. This is also to say that we were created to know God and to have the capacity, by grace, to know Him. Consider the evangelical imperative: “Go and make disciples.” What would it mean in our proclamation of the gospel were we to have within it an understanding that we are calling people to Beauty? The report of St. Vladimir’s emissaries to Constantinople that when they attended worship among the Orthodox they “did not know whether we were on earth or in heaven. We only know that of a truth, God is with them,” is history’s most profound confirmation of this proclamation.
St. Paul confirms the same when he describes the progressive work of our salvation as “the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” If we would have our hearts cured of the illness that mistakes Sodom for the Kingdom of God, then we should turn our eyes to the face of Christ. There the heart’s battle will find its Champion and beauty will find its Prototype.
In his novel, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis imagines a bus-load of people who travel from “hell” to “heaven.” Their trip takes them from a place described as “gray,” and ghost-like in its not-so-solid existence. Heaven, on the other hand, is quite solid. The day-trippers find the most immediate difficulty of their journey to be the problems of dealing with a solid world while being ghost-like. The grass does not bend (thus becoming something like small spikes). A falling apple is a most dangerous prospect.
Lewis’ fictional imagery reveals a genuine metaphysical problem. Our popular imagination tends to equate “spiritual” things with the less-real and imaginary. Lewis properly reverses the equation and suggests that the spiritual is more “real,” more “solid.” Though the language of “solid” is perhaps too specific, it is an apt metaphor for how things are. When we speak of God and of those things that transcend our world, the Christian should understand that we are speaking about things whose existence is greater than our own.
“Yet once more I shake not only the earth, but also heaven.” Now this, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of those things that are being shaken, as of things that are made, that the things which cannot be shaken may remain. Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us have grace, by which we may serve God acceptably with reverence and godly fear. For our God is a consuming fire (Heb. 12:26-29).
We dwell among “things that are being shaken,” but are receiving “a kingdom which cannot be shaken.” St. Paul does with shaking what Lewis does with solid. It is the less solid, the less stable, which can be shaken. Or, as St. Paul says, “the things that are made.” It is the things that are merely “created” that can be shaken. Only the uncreated remains. It is beyond understanding, but the promise of the fathers (and here in the Scriptures) is that in Christ we are to become “uncreated by grace.” God alone is “uncreated.” But by His grace, we become partakers of His uncreated life (which alone is unshakeable).
This establishes the path of theology. We speak from the place of the shakeable about a place being revealed that is unshakeable. We speak from the less real, about the more real. What we know and experience is not unreal, but its reality is contingent and relative.
This brings us back to discussion of the true and false self:
Surely [the good man] shall not be moved for ever: the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance. He shall not be afraid of evil tidings: his heart is fixed, trusting in the LORD. His heart is established, he shall not be afraid…(Ps. 112:6-8).
The Scriptures grant an unmovable quality to the true self (heart). It is a spiritual creation, established in the Lord’s Pascha, and participates in the uncreated life of God. It is through that participation that we know Christ. True faith is not an ephemeral thought that passes through the ego. It is established in the heart and there it abides (I Cor. 13:13).
This expression “to abide” clearly has the meaning of the unshakable, uncreated life of God. The lyrical words of Christ in his discourse and prayer in the Garden (John 14-17) speak repeatedly of our abiding in God and God’s abiding in us. This stable, immutable reality reveals God’s glory:
Neither pray I for these alone, but for them also which shall believe on me through their word; That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me. And the glory which thou gavest me I have given them; that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one; and that the world may know that thou hast sent me, and hast loved them, as thou hast loved me (Jn. 17:20-23).
The Uncreated became flesh and dwelt among us – and now invites us into His uncreated life, that we might share in His glory, that we might abide in Him as He abides in us. This is true unity – not the political or social unity of negotiating egos. This is the unity of persons participating in a common life, whose prototype is the holy Trinity.
The movement away from the instability of the false self with its anxieties, imaginings, ever-changing narratives, etc., is the most fundamental act of the spiritual life. Though the life of the heart is still largely hidden, it is the treasure hidden in the field. It is in the stillness (hesychia) and quiet of the heart that we begin to perceive Christ.
That perception is of the truly real, the immoveable and uncreated life that is ours in Christ. It is not yet the uncreated light of which the fathers speak, but its life belongs to that light.
This also tells us something about darkness. The dangers we face are not found in mistaken ideas – they are found in the negation of what is. Scripture says that our adversary was a “murderer from the beginning.” It is existence that he hates, though he does not have the power to cause anything to cease to be. It is God alone who brings us into existence and God alone who sustains all things.
And yet, we encounter darkness. I have seen two kinds of darkness (surely there are more). One is the darkness that resembles despair. I have both seen this in others and walked there myself. It is a darkness that is easy to pity and towards which mercy comes swiftly. Despair can take you to the brink and beyond, but it is not poisonous.
The second kind of darkness bears almost no similarity to the first. C.S. Lewis captured a picture of this darkness in his novel, Perelandra. There the “Unman” (Satan using a dead man’s body) pursues an opportunity to cause a second planet to “fall.” There is a great dialog in which the Unman engages Perelandra’s Eve. But it is in less grand settings that the darkness reveals itself. As the hero, Ransom, follows the Unman’s trail, he finds small acts of cruelty, a frog needlessly tortured and left to die; then another and another…. These petty acts of meanness point to a deeper darkness that is simply marked by hatred.
…He told himself that a creature of that kind [the frog] probably had very little sensation. But it did not much mend matters. It was not pity for pain that had suddenly changed the rhythm of his heart-beats. The thing was an intolerable obscenity which afflicted him with shame. It would have been better, or so he thought at that moment, for the whole universe never to have existed than for this one thing to have happened….
The energy of hatred is black. The real thing (and I’ve seen it – if you’ve strayed to the wrong places on the internet – even the ‘Orthodox’ internet – then you’ve seen it, too) is a vapid darkness that steals the breath. It cannot be engaged without staining everything it contacts. It bathes in shame and spews it forth. To acknowledge its very existence is to risk a kind of damnation (from which Christ rescues us). It is hard to imagine this darkness as having a human face, but it often does.
I understand the tragedy and the pain of despair. There are those who imagine suicide as the worst of sins, but it is as nothing in the face of the mercy of God. I do not hesitate to pray with confidence for such souls, for though the pain of their darkness was dark to them, “the darkness and the light are both alike to [God]” (Psalm 139:12).
I do not understand the second kind of darkness and do not know how to enter such a place in order to bring someone out. I believe that Christ does so, and that He knows both the path of entry and creates the way of exit. The souls who have embraced such darkness are not beyond the mercy and kindness of God ( “for He is kind to the unthankful and evil” – Luke 6:35). I believe this to be so because I trust in the kindness of God. But I do not understand it.
I believe in the goodness of God. The darkness of evil is not anything. It is not a creation of God; it has no being. It is a direction and a movement away from goodness and being. In most cases it is a stumbling and a falling away. It is only in rare instances that it becomes a willing force that pushes away all goodness and despises existence itself (not its own so much as that of others). This malevolence (literally “evil willing”) is described as a “mystery” in 2Thess. 2:7. God will destroy it.
It is because the Christian faith is about things that are and not theories and ideas, that I often resist various theologies that are grounded in concepts of justice. Though justice makes an attempt to address the problem of evil, it only compounds matters, offering little more than a theoretical need for evil to suffer yet more. Justice is used as well in an attempt to describe Christ’s atonement. But in such models, evil presents a need for balance and payment, when the true existential crisis is the need for rescue and for evil’s destruction. Humanity has no need for such justice. God has no needs.
The sound of human need is more visceral: “Who will go there to bring them home? Who will come here to deliver me?”
I am reminded again of C.S. Lewis’ Perelandra. There, the hero Ransom (whose name and work mirror Christ), discovered that his mission was not to engage the Unman in conversation. Conversations with evil grant a nobility that does not exist. Our own talk about evil with theories of balance and atonement are equally fruitless. Ransom discovered that his mission was simply to destroy the Unman. The Orthodox approach to human sin and the darkness that afflicts us is equally to the point:
Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.
In the book of Acts, it is recorded that God gave St. Paul a ministry for us: ” to open their eyes, in order to turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who are sanctified by faith in Me” (26:18).
God give us light and destroy the works of darkness.
Written with prayers for the servant of God, Aaron Kimel. May his memory be eternal!
Abba Poemen said, “Teach your mouth to say that which is in your heart.
Do not lie to one another since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him (Col. 3:9)
It is very easy to think of lying and telling the truth as simple “moral” issues. We do not lie because it is wrong, and we tell the truth because it is right. The weakness of such morality is its failure to understand either the nature of sin or the nature of the life to which we have been called as Christians.
Within a purely moral context, the question could be asked: “If you were able to tell a lie, and no one was hurt by it and no one but yourself knew it, where would be the wrong?” The answer would come back in a purely moral form that would involve the breaking of a commandment and the righteous judgment of God. Christianity as a moral system is Christianity misunderstood.
I have stated before that Christ did not die to make bad men good – He died to make dead men live. Christ’s teachings on the Kingdom of God, when measured by a moral yardstick, often seem to ask too much or to push Christians beyond the boundaries of morality. Thus the moralizers of Christianity have often described the Sermon on the Mount as an “interim ethic,” a teaching that only makes sense if the end of the world is but a short time away.
In various times and places the “Christian” moral teaching has been largely indistinguishable from the accepted morality of society at large – thus making the Church the underwriter of culture. A number of denominations are in serious difficulties today as the culture around them is undergoing serious moral changes. Those who have had the deepest investment in underwriting the dominant culture have largely been the first to find reasons to change their moral teaching to continue their cultural position.
The problem with morality (as we popularly understand the term) is that it misses the point of Christian teaching. Christian “moral” teaching frequently does an injustice to the faith by corrupting the nature of the Church’s life and the purpose of its teaching.
Truth is not a matter of morality – it is a matter of existence and non-existence.
This is the fundamental insight and teaching of St. Athanasius in his classical work, On the Incarnation.
For the transgression of the commandment was making them [humanity] turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good (De Incarnatione, 1.4).
As St. Paul would observe, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). Right and wrong are not measured by abstract laws but by their relationship to existence. That which is wrong has about it – the nature of death.
This is the reason that Scripture gives such a priority to telling the truth. The nature of a lie is found precisely in its non-existence. Thus the devil is characterized in his rebellion against God as “a liar and the father of lies.” Evil has no existence, but in the malevolence of the wicked one, it seeks to draw everything that has existence into non-existence.
The Christian life is an acceptance of the true life in Christ – a life which is nothing other than communion with the true and living God. In this alone do we have true and authentic existence. In this alone do we have eternal life.
The various lies and distortions of the truth which we utter or in which we participate are enemies of our own existence. We give consent to corruption which is our non-existence when we give voice to a lie. The life of salvation is a constant movement towards the Truth, being conformed to the image of Truth.
We have the added difficulty that the truth is often opaque for us. We do not see it clearly. This is a manifestation of the state of our heart, our inner disposition. The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is an encouragement to move towards an authentic existence. It may be that “what is in your heart” is darkness. That darkness needs to be brought into the light. In Orthodox practice, this is normatively done in the mystery of confession. We reveal the darkness of our hearts and bring them before the Truth of Christ. In that healing light, we receive the forgiveness of our sins – we receive the life of Christ Himself.
Of course the Law, or rules, are not without benefit. They serve as a “tutor” in the language of St. Paul, to point us to Christ. They teach our heart that the process of healing might begin in us even at an early age.
But the clarity that comes with the light of Christ begins to remove the opacity of our vision and allows us to live without delusion and to see the Truth. “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
The admonition “to say what is in your heart” is not a call to say aloud every dark thought that infects us and to spew the darkness wherever we go. But there can be no integrity within us until our hearts and our lips are united. We cannot say one thing and mean another and remain in the light.
“The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” God give us grace to speak the truth. May He drive the darkness from our hearts.
On July 1, the Very Rev. Peter Gillquist fell asleep in the Lord. His story, along with that of many others, is part of a modern transformation of the Orthodox Church, an awakening to the work of evangelism for the Church that carried the gospel to the Roman Empire and beyond, and witnessed the conversion of ancient kingdoms across the face of the globe. It was also a Church that, battered by persecution, dominated by hostile states and limited by state policy, had largely seen its role as the care of its own with evangelism left in the hands neighboring, colonial powers. In America, Orthodoxy was a Church of immigrants, often held in disdain by the surrounding Western European-based ethnic groups. It was viewed as “exotic,” but “backwards,” and ill-suited to the needs of a modern world.
Stories abound in the English-speaking world of those who inquired of Orthodoxy only to be turned away. Met. Kallistos Ware relates how his first approaches to the Orthodox faith were rebuffed. He was told to remain an Anglican. With persistence he was told that he could become Orthodox, but should not expect to become a priest. The late Archbishop Dmitri of Dallas, came to the Orthodox Church at age 16 with his sister. They attended Holy Trinity Church in Dallas for weeks before anyone spoke to them. Vladyka said that he was 21 before he ever heard a service in English.
The language barrier was difficult for many. Following his conversion in 1958, Met. Kallistos authored one of the first books in English to give a comprehensive introduction to the Orthodox Church. It was published in 1963. The first all-English language parish in the United States (according to my sources) was founded in the 1955’s in Tarzana, CA. It was a novel idea.
My first explorations of Orthodoxy came during my college years in the mid-70’s. In 1981 I lunched with a Greek Orthodox priest who told me that I was “better off staying where I was.” It felt positively ecumenical.
It was not an ecumenical gesture. The priest had no doubt of the nature of Orthodoxy (as the true faith). He simply had no sense that the treasure given to him was meant to be shared. History had divided Christians, and they were best left where they were.
Fr. Peter Gillquist, an extremely gifted writer, speaker and evangelist, was part of a group of evangelical Christians who had begun to explore Orthodox thought and life. In true protestant fashion, the group formed a series of Churches (the Evangelical Orthodox Church). But in true Orthodox fashion, they began to pursue reception into true, canonical Orthodoxy. He related that story in his book, Becoming Orthodox. In 1987, 17 parishes with 2,000 members were led into the faith under the omophor of the Patriarch of Antioch. Though the group would initially have its own unique life and character, by 1995 they were fully assimilated into the life and liturgical practice of the Orthodox Church.
Their reception was greeted in a variety of ways by the Orthodox. Some worried that they would bring corrupt practices and ideas into the Church (in practice, those parishes proved to be more “traditional” than many ethnic Churches). Others worried that their reception itself had violated canons (their clergy were ordained as priests as a group rather than individually – unusual but not unprecedented).
But their journey into Orthodoxy was part of a transformation for Orthodoxy in the Western world. There were many factors that came together in the last quarter of the 20th century that opened the path of conversion. No one thing can be singled out. However, the evangelical commitment of Fr. Peter and others (including figures such as Archbishop Dmitri and Met. Kallistos) coincided with this transformation. Perhaps all of these came at a “tipping point,” as we say today. Recent statistical studies show that in the Greek Archdiocese of America, 29 percent of its members are converts (from Protestant or Catholic) with 12 percent of its clergy being convert. In the Orthodox Church of America (the jurisdiction in which I serve), over half of the clergy and the laity are converts (this does not include the significant number of young clergy who are the children of converts).
Together these converts have brought a wealth of energy and insight. Publishing of material on the Orthodox faith, geared towards the non-Orthodox, has undergone an “explosion” in the last generation. The internet, though very uneven in its content and accuracy, echoes with this same energy.
According to a 2010 demographic study, more than half of OCA clergy and laity converted from Protestant or Roman Catholic churches. In GOA churches, 29 percent of lay persons are converts to Orthodox Christianity and 12 percent of clergy are converts. Doubtless, such an influx of converts has had an impact on Orthodoxy. From all indications, however, the impact has not been to make Orthodox parishes more protestant or Roman Catholic. Converts are often eager to be less like their former associations. At the same time that this influx of converts has entered North American Orthodoxy, monasticism has rapidly expanded. For much of the 20th century, there were three to four Orthodox monastic communities in America – yielding a Church largely devoid of monastic experience. Today there are over 80 monastic communities. Though most are small, they are a growing part of the life of many American parishes. Orthodoxy in America is not becoming less traditional, but more so.
My family and I were received into the Church in 1998. My two oldest daughters are married to Orthodox priests, and a significant number of my extended family has entered the faith. What was relatively easy for me was made possible by many others. Fr. Peter was an untiring evangelist, nurturing individuals in very isolated places. He took time for everyone. He lived in the best missionary manner. May his memory be eternal!