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Why donít you introduce yourself, tell us what youíre doing now and how you became Orthodox.
My name is Johnny. Iím 34 years old, married, and Iím a psychiatric nurseówhich Iíve been for about ten years. I became Orthodox and was received into the Church three years ago. I went through a period of training as a catechumen before that. I didnít come from another Church tradition. I was an atheist beforehand and quite virulently anti-church.
So, why did you become Orthodox? Why not Anglican? Or Roman Catholic?
Well, for starters, Iíd been a communist for some time. Not a member of the Communist party, but I was quite involved with politics, so I had a sympathy with the old Soviet regime, I suppose. Then I became more and more disenchanted with political solutions. You see, I was very involved with political conflicts. I participated in the minersí strikes and was caught up in their struggles. There was quite a lot of violent confrontation involved in my kind of political activity, and I slowly became aware that I was becoming somehow moreÖ actually, that it was doing something to me. I was more and more thinking of myself as surrounded by enemies, and believed that violence and conflict was the only way of achieving anything. As socialism declined around the world, and our own country failed to improve, it became clear that I was only becoming more bitter, and inward looking. What had led me into politics was a concern for morality, a concern for mankind, a concern for peace, and so on; but in fact, I had become a very hostile, very isolated person. So, there was a crisis there for me. A moral crisis.
|John Cowie, a British Orthodox psychiatric nurse|
Because I was involved in nursing, I was working with a lot of handicapped people. At that time, just prior to my conversion, I worked with profoundly handicapped people, both physically and mentally. I had become more and more dissatisfied with any kind of rational explanation of what it was to be a human being, because it was clear that there were people whose humanity was just as valid as my own, and yet who didnít appear to have any intellectual capabilities, werenít able to contribute in a tangible way to societyóall the measurable things about humanity were missing. Yet I was experiencing that it was possible to love, and also to be loved by people whoÖ. well, there is just no way to explain the humanity there. So, this was pushing me into a position where I seemed to be developing a conviction about the sanctity of life, of human life in particularóďpersonhoodĒ if you like. I couldnít sustain that within my political philosophy so I was in torment. Then one day I took a hospital patient to a small chapel serviceóit was an Anglican service in the hospital chapel.
Did he ask you to?
Yes. This was a slightly more able person. I had many different jobs, and this one was with elderly people who were more aware. So we went to the chapel. It was an Anglican service. As you may know, the Anglican Church is much more permissive about Communion, itís not so exclusive. This was particularly so because it was a hospital chapel for disabled people. Instead of people going up to receive Communion, the priest would come around. So, I sat through this church service. I had been increasingly drawn to church servicesómuch to my distressóbecause philosophically I continued to think that this was the most awful, hocus-pocus nonsenseÖreactionary, right-wing, etc. But I found myself in church because of my work. I was taking people to church and feeling something. Anyway, this short Anglican service was full of talk about the shepherd leading his sheep to pastures, and water from the stream, and the language of it really affected me, until I was feeling, ďI really want to have a drink of this water, and I want to go to this pasture, and I need a shepherd to look after me.Ē So, emotionally there was something very powerful there.
Finally, the chaplain came forward with the chalice, and before I knew it, I was drinking from the chalice. At that moment it seemed wrong to refuse. But the moment I had done this, I was thrown into even greater confusion. I thought, ďWhat have I done here? Iím not a member of the Church. I donít even believe in God, and Iíve done this thing. What does this mean? Have I received Communion? Or have I merely had some wine? Or have I committed some blasphemous act?Ē I was so very upset by this and I didnít know what to do. So, I thought, ďI must talk to a priest.Ē
Iíve always been a kind of ďall or nothingĒ sort of a personóthrowing myself into things. I found it difficult to accept that Communion was only a symbol of Christian togethernessóeven when I was an atheist. Either this is all true, or itís all rubbish. Either He is the Son of God and this is His Body and Blood, or itís a story. And itís a silly story. So, the idea that you could be somewhere in the middle, I couldnít deal with. So, once I drank from the chalice I had to know what it was. Is it nothing, or is it everything? And I knew that I wasnít going to get that clear of an answer from most Anglican ministers I knew. So, I telephoned the Black Friars, a Roman Catholic friary, and said, ďI need to speak to a priest.Ē And the lady on the phone said: ďIíll send you a form and we can make you an appointment.Ē I was in such a state.
Why did you decide to talk to a Roman Catholic priest and not someone else?
You see, there was a lot going on that Iíve had to make sense of since. But although I didnít know how to talk about it then, what I would say now is that it had to do with the Apostolic succession, the feeling that there could only be One ChurchÖ It really doesnít make a lot of sense. But I thought at that time, ďIf this act has occurred, then this is an act that has to do with me and the Church. And where is that Church?Ē I thought, ďWell, it must be the Roman Catholic Church.Ē
So, anyway, this lady was going to arrange an appointment for me, but I was really freaking out. I suppose my fantasy at the time was that she would say: ďStay by the phone. Weíll send a friar.Ē That sort of thing. I thought there would be some guy with a cross who would come and it would all be O.K. But this didnít happen. So, I spoke to a friend who had been brought up Catholic. I asked him about it and he said, ďWell, as it happens, Iíve been going to see an Orthodox bishop and Iíve been preparing to be received into the Orthodox Church.Ē I didnít know anything about this at all. He didnít talk much about it. He just said, ďYou can talk to him. I donít think you need to make an appointment. Just give him a ring and see.Ē So, I phoned Bishop Basil and he said, ďCome over.Ē
The following day I went to see him. I sat there and burst into tears and said, ďIíve done a terrible thing. I drank from the Communion chalice and I donít even believe in God, and I think that Iím in a mess, and whatís the state of my soul? I need you to make sense of this for me.Ē He said, ďSo, you donít believe in God?Ē I said, ďNo. Thatís the worst of it.Ē He said: ďWell, you do.Ē I said, ďWhat do you mean?Ē He said, ďIf you didnít believe in God you wouldnít be so worried.Ē I said, ďReally. You mean I do believe?Ē And he said: ďThat would appear to be the case.Ē So, that was fantastic. I said, ďRight. Well, what do I do?Ē He replied: ďCome to church.Ē
So, I did. I went to Vespers that weekend. I didnít know what was going on, it was all in Greek. I didnít speak any Greek then and I still donít. And there was this strange chant; it was nothing like any church service I have ever been to before. Yet I felt I had come to the right place. One of the unique things about being Orthodox in Oxford is that there is a Greek parish and a Russian parish, and over half of the services are either in Slavonic or in Greek. For me that has been a good thing, because it means that although half the time I can understand every word of the service in English and relate to whatís going on intellectually, at other times I am completely unable to, which means that I have to attend more to the intuitive, the visual, the bodily.
Actually, that is one of the things that Iíve come to see as characterizing Orthodoxy for me, as opposed to the Anglican tradition that I experienced at school. In the West religion is approached as if it is an intellectual affairó intellectual or emotionalóbut that somehow the body and the heart, the ďphysicality,Ē is excluded. Itís not corporate. In two ways itís not corporate. Itís not corporate because there is this turning away from the body, but also because it is so individualistic. The Protestant tradition is all to do with Me, I, and not Us. I always liked scripture, I was always interested in the Bible, you see, and I knew enough about the Bible to remember: ďFor where two or three are gathered together in my nameÖ.Ē Nothing about: whenever one of youÖ Right? Two or three.
Since then, of course, as Iíve grown into the Faith, the Tradition, Iíve been able to make sense of that in terms of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and its central place in the Church, whereas my experience before finding Orthodoxy was that, ďTrinitarian theology is embarrassing and we donít really know what itís all about.Ē Of course, we donít know what itís about, but that doesnít stop us from thinking about it all the time and making more sense of it. Yes, it is a mystery. And the mystery is preserved in Orthodoxy, whereas in the West, it seems to me that the mystery is thought of as a problem to be overcome.
Also, the theology of the icon. When I first venerated an icon I had a very strong feeling that I was being permitted physically to embrace God, and that when I kissed the wood of the icon, the matter which is me was lifted up. This is vital to me. I couldnít be a Christian without those pieces of wood. Itís not just a style thing: ďThese marvelous Russian works of art.Ē A battered old icon cut out of a magazine is good enough for me. But especially these pieces of wood. [Johnny taps on wood.] Itís physical. It means that if God can become this in Christ, and if the legacy of that are these bits of wood with pictures on them, and I can kiss the pictures, then the bit of wood that I am is not held in contempt by God and is not to be held in contempt by anyone else. And this explains why if you sit facing a human being, then the material presence is enough. A human being doesnít have to justify himself. This is important to me because I work with people who are thrown away. So, thatís part of it.
Also, there was an occasion a few years before all this, when I was in New York with some friends. I wonít tell the whole story, but there was something quite morally terrible happening and I was on the verge of participating in something that I would have very deeply regretted. Iíve done many bad things in my life, but mainly I can look back on these things and feel theÖ. well, this was different. It would have been very, very bad indeed and I would have found it very difficult to live with, somehow. I was also very drunk at the time. But I had a vision of the Mother of God, and at the time this was enough to make me stop what I was about to do. At first, I thought of it as just being a strange thing that had happened when I was drunk, but after becoming Orthodox I thought, ďWell, noówhatever that was, you know, Iím not going to look into it too much, but it did happen to me.Ē This was my experienceó that I would have taken a very, very wrong path, and then the Mother of God saved me... It stayed with me and that was probably why, after I received that first Communion, it was the Catholic Church that I went to.
At the time you had this vision, did you know it was the Mother of God?
I recognized her. Actually, I recognized her from Renaissance paintings. She appeared the way the Virgin is depicted in the Western tradition. Of course, that was the language that I understood at the time. So, I knew who she was. I canít see who else would have appeared on the fire escape of a New York apartment building just at that moment and said what she said. It clearly wasnít anyone elseÖ. I spent three years struggling to find out what it all meant. It happened in a rush, without my making sense of it. It was like, ďIím not going to question this.Ē It was beyond that.
ÖI think Iím probably quite unusual in the congregation here, because most of the people have come from another church and have probably been converted because of subtle, but important aspects of theologyótheological differences. But for me it was absolutely jumping in from being completely outside the Church to seeing that I just have to be here. There was no doubt from the beginning, from the moment that I knew that the Orthodox Church was here in Oxford, I knew that this is the Catholic and Apostolic Church and this is where I have to be, no matter how absurd that might seem.
I also read a lot of Dostoyevsky, and Dostoyevsky continues to speak to me. In particular, Dostoyevsky shows people who are full of sin and weakness and folly and madness, and who are fully engaged with God in their madness and their sinfulness. I hadnít realized that there was a living Christian tradition that would allow me in the door, because Iím like that. I was sort of a crazy, wicked, stupid guy. And I always thought, ďChristianity, thatís not for me because Iím not good enough.Ē It seemed that way to me. It seemed that Christianity was for good people and I had the feeling that if I became a Christian, if I managed to be that good, then Iíd somehow not really be alive anymore. Iíd become one of these good people. But, you know, here I am, Iím Orthodox, and Iím still the same and itís this constant mess. I expect to be in this constant mess until I die. Christianity isnít about becoming safe and snug and free from suffering. I probably suffer even more these days than I did before, because I realize the importance of life, the importance of my life, in a way that I didnít then. I realize that it matters. Everything matters.
I think of it somehow like a lighthouse. Thereís this lighthouse. Christ is a lighthouse. Iím still in the same stormy sea, but I can see the lighthouse, and this means that I can see where I am. This might mean knowing how far I am from the lighthouse. It might mean being able to perceive just how bad my situation is, just how far I have to go, just how strong Iím going to have to be to swim that farÖ And sometimes, to realize that Iím swimming with all my strength away from the lighthouse. But the lighthouse is there. The lighthouse isnít going to go anywhere. Itís been there for two thousand years, and whatever happens to me, there is still going to be this body of people who continue to point the way to the lighthouse. Particularly, the monks who have been chanting for centuriesótheyíre going to be chanting after Iím gone. So, I can place myself somehow; in spiritual terms, because of the lighthouse, and in worldly terms because of those monks. The Body of the Church is hereójust a bus ride away. I can go there and be in the real presence of God, in the Body of the Church, which is fantastic.
Itís hard enough to be a Christian. But in Western countries I think itís even harder than in Russia where there is an on-going thousand year-old Orthodox tradition. How do you find your situation now that youíre Orthodox and you still have to meet the same people that you knew before you became Christian? Is it hard for you to communicate with them? How do they look at you now? Do they think youíre some kind of weird guy who became some kind of weird Christian?
I am some kind of weird guyÖ and always have been. And everybody knows that and everybody likes me partly for that reason. So, thatís O.K. I donít go on and on about it. I donít preach to people. Outwardly I havenít changed a huge amount. So, itís been O.K. really. Iíve abused people less. Thatís good. I havenít become boring, because thatís not required. You donít have to become boring to be a Christian. Although I have the same impulses I always did, I think Iím much less violent. I was never going around beating up people really, but somehow, I hope Iíve become more harmless. At my job, I now work with very disturbed people with severe psychiatric problems. Thereís a lot of suffering, a lot of anger, a lot of conflict going on there, and I think people tend to feel safe with me, even when theyíre probably not feeling safe in any other way. I think thatís somehow to do with being in the Church.
The modern way of thinking is that death and suffering are like bad accidentsóit would be nice if there were no suffering and no death. ďThere canít be a God because if there was a God, then why is there all this suffering and death?Ē Well, this is the wrong way around. There is suffering and death. So, we have to start from there. And when you start from there and start taking the answers that Christianity has to offer seriously, then you can see that no oneís suffering is without meaning. Suffering is never without meaning. My suffering and other peopleís suffering. Part of what I do at work, but also what I do in life, is to be able to endure suffering and to meet other people in suffering. Not to make me sound better than I am, because I still hate pain and I want everything to be nice and cozy. I want to go to bed and pull the cover over my head. But I know that thereís going to be suffering, and itís not going to go away. The worst thing you can do is deny it. Sooner or later, if you deny suffering, you deny suffering people, and you end up locking suffering people away or killing suffering people so that the world is prettier. I donít have to do that any more. I donít have to participate in that. I still work in this hospital and a lot of what we do, a lot of what the hospital does, is to take away the suffering from view so that people donít have to look at it. But I still go there and I look at it. I see people and try to be with people. I donít do anything amazing. I have cups of tea and cigarettes with people whose lives are torn to bits. But, you know, I have a cigarette with them. And thatís another way I can talk about Christianity.
In a way, Christianity has torn my life to bits. I suppose Iím quite a clever sort of guy. I read a lot and have always been interested in ideas and Iíve been all sorts of things throughout my life. Iíve been a Communist, a psychiatric nurse, been interested in psychoanalysis and philosophy and so on. I studied philosophy and I can get my head around it. Do you know the phrase: ďto get your head around something?Ē When you get your head around something, it shows that itís smaller than your head. Christianity is not smaller than my head. If I try to get my head around Christianity, my head will break. So, Christ is somebody I worship because Heís bigger than me. Iíd never met anybody or anything that was bigger than me, stronger than me, but Iíd always been looking for something bigger and stronger than me to worship. Because Iíve always been anti-authoritarian, I disobeyed anybody who told me what to do, and anyone who tried to stop me, Iíd fight. Now, hereís a guy I canít fight. So, He deserves my worship. Itís fantastic to behold. And now I know my size. My size is that Iím smaller than God. The idea that is so popular these days, that there is nothing above man, is completely wrong. Man doesnít know that heís a man until he meets the Person who is greater than a man. A cat is smaller than a man, and a man is smaller than God. And this is where I am at. The cats canít open the tin of food. They need me to open the tin of food. Itís no dishonour to the cats that they need me to open the tin for them. Itís a privilege for me to do it and we love the catsÖ. Jesus Christ is the top of that chain between heaven and earth and, you know, I fit into it, too. Iím not lost anymore. Iím not without scale.
This is very interesting, thank you. Now I have another question. I realize that you donít have problems communicating with people who are not Orthodox, but how about those who are? Youíre different. For Russians you look a little strange.
Itís a mixed group of people who go to the church in Canterbury Road and some people are very respectable and some people arenít. I suppose Iím at one end of that spectrum. But people are very accepting of me and I try to be accepting of other people. Iíve been amazed at how accepted Iíve been. Over the years Iíve discovered an increasing role in the church. Mundane, practical things. Iíve slowly been invited into the community around the church. I do little things in the church serviceóI stop the candles from getting out of control, and when the Gospel is brought in procession, Iím the one who takes the icon from the stand and moves it so that the Gospel can be placed there. Clearly, people are happy to have me do those little things, and so I have a real place somehow. And, even though some people feel comfortable with being very conservative in how they conduct themselves, I donít think that thatís the heart of itóeven for the people who are the most strict in that way.
Of course not. But the ring you wear through your cheek is really unusual. In Russia it would be something very shocking.
I understand that marking the body is actually, strictly speaking, forbidden by Orthodox canon law. Now, when I was baptized three years ago I stood in a pair of shorts in the middle of the church and had water poured over me, and I have these tattoos on my back. So, the body that was baptized is the body that has these tattoos. Iíve been accepted into the Church and this is what I am like. Iím not going to do anything these days that is forbidden by Orthodox canon law, but I was fully received into the Church and this is what I am. So, thatís got to be O.K., somehow. Also, you see, I live here. Iím not that odd for East Oxford. If you walk down the county road there are lots of guys who look like me. Apart from the fact that I still struggle with who I amóand struggle even more with who I am since becoming OrthodoxóI also remain part of this community. If I had suddenly become something very different, then I probably couldnít inhabit the two worlds quite so well. There is a lot in the Gospels and in the letters of St. Paul about standing with one foot in two worlds.
When I was baptized I was baptized Simeon, so my name is Simeon and my name in the world is Johnny. I am in the world, but Iím not of the worldÖI think one of the things that speaks to me a lot are the letters of St. Paul, which I really love and find very helpfulóbecause hereís a guy whose head is blowing up all the time; heís discovering all this stuff for the first time. You read the letters of Paul and sense his state of excitement, his trying to get his head around his experience and sometimes failing to do so, but usually just about managing somehowóit brings the whole thing very much alive to me. In the Letter to the Romans there is the text about being a fool for Christís sake and that we are the offscourings of humanity. Where we are cursed, we bless. This is very important for me, as I am probably going to continue to be a wretch. Itís nearly the year 2000, and we are really becoming very savage. Humanity is becoming savage. Weíve got TVs, videos, airplanes, and so on, but we are ignorant peopleóall of usóthese days. Itís very difficult for us to keep hold of our humanity in all this. I think things are going to become very, very ugly. Biblical prophecy from the Old and New Testaments describes where we are nowóthe last days. Whether that means that things are going to end next year, I donít know. St. Anthony the Great said there will come a time when all men will be mad, and when they meet somebody who is not mad, they will set upon him and say: ďYouíre not like us. Youíre mad.Ē
I think the world is going mad, and Iím in the middle of it. St. Anthony the Great is another person who speaks to me out of the Tradition and he wasnít respectable. All those guys. All the Desert Fathers. They lived in those caves and they didnít have showers. Itís a broad Tradition, and Iím a tiny thing within it finding my place. But there is also room for people who wear headscarves, and I have great respect for that. But that is probably not exactly where Iím meant to be. Iím feeling my way. Iíve met the bishop and am under advice from the bishop and if he were to tell me to do something radically different from what I am doing, Iíd do it.
Perhaps there is something I havenít asked you that you would like to add?
Well, you asked before about how people respond to my being Orthodox. Something Iíve found is that being Orthodox in England is an interesting and exotic thing. I wish it wasnít. Although I feel completely right about being Orthodox, there is one thing that I liked about being Anglican, which was that I could just go to the church down the road with everybody who lives around here. So, thatís a problem. Iím not Orthodox to be odd. Iím Orthodox to be Orthodox, for right worship. Thatís what itís about. I joined the Orthodox Church because the Orthodox Church is the mainstream; itís where the Judeo-Christian tradition is at now.
Itís not a funny thing that Iím doing. Itís not a hobby. It can appear to be almost cool to be Orthodox, and in some ways I feel like I get an easy ride from people, because if I say too much about being Orthodox, people who might otherwise shun meólike they would if I were an evangelical Christianó say, ďThatís O.K., itís all right to be Orthodox.Ē Well, sometimes I have to say, ďNo, look, basically Iím one of those guys that you donít want to be around. You may have to think about this again.Ē You know the little fish sign that ďborn-again ChristiansĒ wear? I got myself one of those the other day, to wear on my jacket. I got it in order to say, ďI really am a Christian, not just Orthodox. Iím an Orthodox Christian.Ē When I went into the shop to buy the badgeó a little evangelical shop down the roadó the woman in the shop looked at me and I said to her: ďThis is about the only way that a Christian can get himself persecuted these days, you know, by wearing one of these things.Ē She looked at me really strangely and probably thought: ďWow, weíve got a nut case here.Ē But itís an important thing. Christians are pushed aside, or persecuted, or people are suspicious of Christians. Part of that is because of the misunderstanding, which Christians are as responsible for as non-Christians, that Christians are ďholier than thou.Ē Christians are these good people, smug people, people who are O.K. because they know that theyíre saved, but the rest of the peopleÖ. well. Christians and non-Christians alike have allowed that to happen. But the other side of it is that the devil will see to it that Christians are persecuted. And itís important to receive some of that. You canít be living life right if you donít get a certain amount of it.
Text of interview with Johnnie Cowie, published in Foma in Russian and in the Foma Section of Road to Emmaus, Vol. 1, No. 2 (2) Summer 2000, Valaam Society of America Russian Mission, Moscow, Russia
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