My Orthodox Beginnings

I was in church one day and had a spiritual experience. I was standing in the back of the church and suddenly I felt that God was definitely here in church, almost tangibly, and it was like He was telling me that He is here. It is hard to explain exactly how this happened. I was surprised and immediately burst into tears, I sat down and cried uncontrollably.
m. S. | 26 December 2008

My father was a seminarian in an Anglican School of Theology, and he later received a master’s in theology. Interestingly, even with a master’s in theology, he never had heard of the Orthodox Church. It was generally unheard of in our parts. My mother was also of strict Anglican upbringing. The theological course in this school was interesting in that Roman Catholic, Anglican and Unitarian students all studied in the same classes. Often classes would erupt in heated debates over one or another theological point. Within this melee, my father noticed that what they were teaching then in class was not what early Christians taught, as they understood it within those classes. He did historical research back to the reformation, and studied Catholicism. Again the same thing, the church’s teachings were changed. He continued going back further in history, and he began studying the schism between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. He became interested in Orthodoxy and read what he could about it.

 

Unfortunately, his first contacts with the Orthodox Church were very unpleasant. After looking throughout the region we lived for any Orthodox Churches, he discovered that there was a small Greek parish. He went to the parish and introduced himself to a Greek gentleman that was there, who happened to be the church warden. After mentioning that he was interested in Orthodoxy, the man said, “You are a good English boy, but an English boy should go to an English church!” That did not discourage my father, and he later called up the priest of the parish. But, after introducing himself on the phone and explaining his interest in Orthodoxy, the priest said, “speak Greek!” and hung up the phone.

 

I was about eight years old at the time this was happening. Our mother would take us every Sunday to the Anglican parish, and we would attend Sunday school. Our father also would give us Anglican children’s books to read about Jesus. When my father finally decided that he wanted to be baptized Orthodox, he had a date set when he would meet with a priest from the Orthodox Church of America. My mother was very upset that he wanted to become Orthodox, and she was so afraid that he would have his children baptized that she had a plan arranged with her own mother to whisk the children off to the city where our grandmother lived  at the time he said that he would be baptized. The priest arrived to baptize my father a week earlier than planned. On the day he was suppose to be baptized, he came to his children and told us that daddy was going to be baptized. My older sister, nine at the time, had just seen a baptism performed on a Christian TV show we frequently watched. She said, “Oh! Can we be baptized too?” My father took that as a sign and consent, and he took his children with him. We were all baptized together.  

 

Needless to say, my mother was not happy about that. She called her bishop and asked what she should do now that her kids were baptized Orthodox. The Bishop recommended to her to let the children grow up and decide for themselves what they want to be.

 

My parents eventually separated and my mother took us to another place to live. We did not go to church any more. We were in kind of a religious vacuum, and religion was a topic we all avoided talking about. My father was careful to give us icons and books about Orthodoxy, and to teach us how to pray. I did not know any other Orthodox people. My only connection to Orthodoxy was through my father and books. But I still considered myself an Orthodox Christian. If anyone asked me what religion I was, I would of say “Orthodox Christian.” And then the questioner always asked next “what is that?” I was like the only Orthodox Christian in the world. I really liked the Lives of the Saints, especially the lives of St. Cyprian and Justina, and of Great-martyr Barbara, they left an impression on me. The breakup of my family was very hard on us kids, and religion had a major role in all the ugly feelings that we were exposed to. We were too young to understand what was happening, but not so young that we were not terribly frightened. A scary darkness took over our home. There was no more stability or security. We felt that somehow we were to blame. We suffered from nightmares and shied away from meeting new people.

 

By the time I reached fifteen I was really restless about what I was doing. I had problems at school, at home, and life seemed to be very dark and oppressing. My father offered to take me on a trip to Greece to visit some Orthodox monasteries. I really wanted to go, at least to get away from my problems, but my mother absolutely refused to let me go. She was afraid that I was going to join some evil cult, which was her impression of Orthodoxy at the time. One day I ran away from home. I bicycled over to the city where my father was living so that he could take me to a monastery. My great adventure on my bicycle was really dangerous, and I almost got killed twice, but I felt that this was something I had to do. When I found my father, the first thing he did was call my mom, and she came and picked me up. I felt betrayed, but, you know, I was only fifteen. What did come out of the whole event was that my mother realized that she could not keep me, and she gave her permission to let me go on this trip.

 

During the summer of 19__ I arrived with my father at one of the monasteries in Greece. It was like I had stepped right into the world that I had been reading about and seeing in the icons. We met two English speaking monks who took us in and made sure our stay was comfortable. They also straightened us out about Orthodox practice and belief, not that we knew very much in the first place. I spent most of my time working in the kitchen and garden under an old monk. Everything seemed beautiful there, and all the fathers seemed like angels. I was actually happy, something that up to that time was new and an unusual experience. Everything was bright and graceful. It is really hard to describe what went on inside me at that time. I had many thoughts, feelings and impressions all mixed up together. I had a lot of darkness inside me, but working in the garden was kind of therapeutic for me. I was able to let something go.

 

I was in church one day and had a spiritual experience. I was standing in the back of the church and suddenly I felt that God was definitely here in church, almost tangibly, and it was like He was telling me that He is here. It is hard to explain exactly how this happened. I was surprised and immediately burst into tears, I sat down and cried uncontrollably.

 

I decided that I wanted to be a monk, and that the world did not have anything for me anymore. I expressed my desire to my spiritual father, who did not say yes or no, but said that I had to finish high school first and then we “will look into it.” I was very upset that here I was, I found something more valuable the world, and I was being sent home. Looking back, this of course was a very wise thing to do, but at the time I was not so inclined to agree. The monastery did not encourage people to become monks quickly, but made sure that “seekers” had lots of time to think about what they were getting in to. This went especially for teen aspirants. Anything could happen with people so young. So I returned home, and everything seemed even darker and more oppressive. All I could think of was how to get back to the monastery. I did return for the next summer, and again I had one more year of high school. I finished high school and returned the same year, and that was the beginning of a new chapter in my life at the monastery, with it’s own adventures, lessons and changes. I had a hard time just convincing my relatives that I was safe, let alone doing something “good”. Since then they have soften to what I am doing.

 

My last year in high school I spent saying good-bye to everything and everyone I had affection for. I could not bring myself to actually say good-bye, but I knew I was not returning, and that I would not see my friends again. I had a hatred for most aspects of my life, so letting go was not exactly a struggle. In fact, it was very liberating. When I finally graduated, I took the plane the next day and vanished.

 

My first year in the monastery was a year of exile. I was in a foreign country, among a foreign people. Everything was in a foreign language. There was just me, forgotten, alone. I really did not have anyone to talk to. I was prepared beforehand for unpleasantness and discomfort, and I certainly encountered my fair share of that. I attended the rigorous services and worked myself past exhaustion. There were temptations as well. Every night I would dream about home, or my old friends, even though I made a clean break with my past. I was lonely, but I wanted to be a monk, and monks had to be above loneliness. I had already closed that door behind me, and there was no turning back. There was only a little labor and patience here in this life, and eternal joy and beauty over there, where everything is light and love, my true homeland.

 

I remember one day as a novice—I was probably 19 years old then—being pushed around by some Greek seminarians who told me that this is a Greek monastery, meaning of course that I was not Greek and so did not belong there. But this was my home, not theirs, and so I just ignored them. Every once in a while a Greek visitor would ask me if I was Greek, and I would of course say no. There were two kinds of reactions to my answer. Either the questioner would say “oh…”, and sort of drift off like there was nothing more to say, or they would warmly say something like “but you are Orthodox, and that is what is important!”

 

I still consider my first two summers at the monastery as the happiest periods of my life. My father and I described our feelings for the place as the “monastery feeling”. It is a feeling of deep happiness and peace. I was enrolled right away into the seminary, and since then I was tonsure a ryassophore five years later, and again into the mantia two years later. To date, I have spent about one third of my life in the monastery, and if I had a chance to go back, I would definitely again take up the path I had already chosen.

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