Why don’t you introduce yourself, tell us what you’re doing now and how you became Orthodox.
My name is Johnny. I’m 34 years old, married, and I’m a psychiatric nurse—which I’ve 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 didn’t 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, I’d 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 miners’ 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 more… 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.
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 didn’t appear to have any intellectual capabilities, weren’t able to contribute in a tangible way to society—all the measurable things about humanity were missing. Yet I was experiencing that it was possible to love, and also to be loved by people who…. 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 particular—“personhood” if you like. I couldn’t sustain that within my political philosophy so I was in torment. Then one day I took a hospital patient to a small chapel service—it 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, it’s 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 services—much to my distress—because philosophically I continued to think that this was the most awful, hocus-pocus nonsense…reactionary, 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, “I 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.” 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, “What have I done here? I’m not a member of the Church. I don’t even believe in God, and I’ve 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?” I was so very upset by this and I didn’t know what to do. So, I thought, “I must talk to a priest.”
I’ve always been a kind of “all or nothing” sort of a person—throwing myself into things. I found it difficult to accept that Communion was only a symbol of Christian togetherness—even when I was an atheist. Either this is all true, or it’s all rubbish. Either He is the Son of God and this is His Body and Blood, or it’s a story. And it’s a silly story. So, the idea that you could be somewhere in the middle, I couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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, “I need to speak to a priest.” And the lady on the phone said: “I’ll send you a form and we can make you an appointment.” 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 I’ve had to make sense of since. But although I didn’t 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 Church… It really doesn’t make a lot of sense. But I thought at that time, “If this act has occurred, then this is an act that has to do with me and the Church. And where is that Church?” I thought, “Well, it must be the Roman Catholic Church.”
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: “Stay by the phone. We’ll send a friar.” 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 didn’t happen. So, I spoke to a friend who had been brought up Catholic. I asked him about it and he said, “Well, as it happens, I’ve been going to see an Orthodox bishop and I’ve been preparing to be received into the Orthodox Church.” I didn’t know anything about this at all. He didn’t talk much about it. He just said, “You can talk to him. I don’t think you need to make an appointment. Just give him a ring and see.” So, I phoned Bishop Basil and he said, “Come over.”
The following day I went to see him. I sat there and burst into tears and said, “I’ve done a terrible thing. I drank from the Communion chalice and I don’t even believe in God, and I think that I’m in a mess, and what’s the state of my soul? I need you to make sense of this for me.” He said, “So, you don’t believe in God?” I said, “No. That’s the worst of it.” He said: “Well, you do.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “If you didn’t believe in God you wouldn’t be so worried.” I said, “Really. You mean I do believe?” And he said: “That would appear to be the case.” So, that was fantastic. I said, “Right. Well, what do I do?” He replied: “Come to church.”
So, I did. I went to Vespers that weekend. I didn’t know what was going on, it was all in Greek. I didn’t speak any Greek then and I still don’t. 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 what’s 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 I’ve 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 affair— intellectual or emotional—but that somehow the body and the heart, the “physicality,” is excluded. It’s not corporate. In two ways it’s not corporate. It’s 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: “For where two or three are gathered together in my name….” Nothing about: whenever one of you… Right? Two or three.
Since then, of course, as I’ve grown into the Faith, the Tradition, I’ve 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, “Trinitarian theology is embarrassing and we don’t really know what it’s all about.” Of course, we don’t know what it’s about, but that doesn’t 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 couldn’t be a Christian without those pieces of wood. It’s not just a style thing: “These marvelous Russian works of art.” A battered old icon cut out of a magazine is good enough for me. But especially these pieces of wood. [Johnny taps on wood.] It’s 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 doesn’t have to justify himself. This is important to me because I work with people who are thrown away. So, that’s part of it.
Also, there was an occasion a few years before all this, when I was in New York with some friends. I won’t 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. I’ve done many bad things in my life, but mainly I can look back on these things and feel the…. 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, “Well, no—whatever that was, you know, I’m not going to look into it too much, but it did happen to me.” This was my experience— 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 can’t 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 wasn’t anyone else…. 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, “I’m not going to question this.” It was beyond that.
…I think I’m 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 theology—theological 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 hadn’t realized that there was a living Christian tradition that would allow me in the door, because I’m like that. I was sort of a crazy, wicked, stupid guy. And I always thought, “Christianity, that’s not for me because I’m not good enough.” 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 I’d somehow not really be alive anymore. I’d become one of these good people. But, you know, here I am, I’m Orthodox, and I’m still the same and it’s this constant mess. I expect to be in this constant mess until I die. Christianity isn’t 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 didn’t then. I realize that it matters. Everything matters.
I think of it somehow like a lighthouse. There’s this lighthouse. Christ is a lighthouse. I’m 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 I’m going to have to be to swim that far… And sometimes, to realize that I’m swimming with all my strength away from the lighthouse. But the lighthouse is there. The lighthouse isn’t going to go anywhere. It’s 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 centuries—they’re going to be chanting after I’m 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 here—just 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.
It’s hard enough to be a Christian. But in Western countries I think it’s even harder than in Russia where there is an on-going thousand year-old Orthodox tradition. How do you find your situation now that you’re 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 you’re some kind of weird guy who became some kind of weird Christian?
I am some kind of weird guy… and always have been. And everybody knows that and everybody likes me partly for that reason. So, that’s O.K. I don’t go on and on about it. I don’t preach to people. Outwardly I haven’t changed a huge amount. So, it’s been O.K. really. I’ve abused people less. That’s good. I haven’t become boring, because that’s not required. You don’t have to become boring to be a Christian. Although I have the same impulses I always did, I think I’m much less violent. I was never going around beating up people really, but somehow, I hope I’ve become more harmless. At my job, I now work with very disturbed people with severe psychiatric problems. There’s 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 they’re probably not feeling safe in any other way. I think that’s somehow to do with being in the Church.
The modern way of thinking is that death and suffering are like bad accidents—it would be nice if there were no suffering and no death. “There can’t be a God because if there was a God, then why is there all this suffering and death?” 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 one’s suffering is without meaning. Suffering is never without meaning. My suffering and other people’s 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 there’s going to be suffering, and it’s 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 don’t have to do that any more. I don’t 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 don’t 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 don’t 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 that’s another way I can talk about Christianity.
In a way, Christianity has torn my life to bits. I suppose I’m quite a clever sort of guy. I read a lot and have always been interested in ideas and I’ve been all sorts of things throughout my life. I’ve 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: “to get your head around something?” When you get your head around something, it shows that it’s 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 He’s bigger than me. I’d never met anybody or anything that was bigger than me, stronger than me, but I’d always been looking for something bigger and stronger than me to worship. Because I’ve always been anti-authoritarian, I disobeyed anybody who told me what to do, and anyone who tried to stop me, I’d fight. Now, here’s a guy I can’t fight. So, He deserves my worship. It’s fantastic to behold. And now I know my size. My size is that I’m smaller than God. The idea that is so popular these days, that there is nothing above man, is completely wrong. Man doesn’t know that he’s 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 can’t open the tin of food. They need me to open the tin of food. It’s no dishonour to the cats that they need me to open the tin for them. It’s a privilege for me to do it and we love the cats…. Jesus Christ is the top of that chain between heaven and earth and, you know, I fit into it, too. I’m not lost anymore. I’m not without scale.
This is very interesting, thank you. Now I have another question. I realize that you don’t have problems communicating with people who are not Orthodox, but how about those who are? You’re different. For Russians you look a little strange.
It’s a mixed group of people who go to the church in Canterbury Road and some people are very respectable and some people aren’t. I suppose I’m at one end of that spectrum. But people are very accepting of me and I try to be accepting of other people. I’ve been amazed at how accepted I’ve been. Over the years I’ve discovered an increasing role in the church. Mundane, practical things. I’ve slowly been invited into the community around the church. I do little things in the church service—I stop the candles from getting out of control, and when the Gospel is brought in procession, I’m 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 don’t think that that’s the heart of it—even 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. I’ve been accepted into the Church and this is what I am like. I’m 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, that’s got to be O.K., somehow. Also, you see, I live here. I’m 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 am—and struggle even more with who I am since becoming Orthodox—I also remain part of this community. If I had suddenly become something very different, then I probably couldn’t 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 I’m not of the world…I think one of the things that speaks to me a lot are the letters of St. Paul, which I really love and find very helpful—because here’s a guy whose head is blowing up all the time; he’s 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 somehow—it brings the whole thing very much alive to me. In the Letter to the Romans there is the text about being a fool for Christ’s 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. It’s nearly the year 2000, and we are really becoming very savage. Humanity is becoming savage. We’ve got TVs, videos, airplanes, and so on, but we are ignorant people—all of us—these days. It’s 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 now—the last days. Whether that means that things are going to end next year, I don’t 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: “You’re not like us. You’re mad.”
I think the world is going mad, and I’m in the middle of it. St. Anthony the Great is another person who speaks to me out of the Tradition and he wasn’t respectable. All those guys. All the Desert Fathers. They lived in those caves and they didn’t have showers. It’s a broad Tradition, and I’m 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 I’m meant to be. I’m feeling my way. I’ve 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, I’d do it.
Perhaps there is something I haven’t asked you that you would like to add?
Well, you asked before about how people respond to my being Orthodox. Something I’ve found is that being Orthodox in England is an interesting and exotic thing. I wish it wasn’t. 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, that’s a problem. I’m not Orthodox to be odd. I’m Orthodox to be Orthodox, for right worship. That’s what it’s about. I joined the Orthodox Church because the Orthodox Church is the mainstream; it’s where the Judeo-Christian tradition is at now.
It’s not a funny thing that I’m doing. It’s 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 me—like they would if I were an evangelical Christian— say, “That’s O.K., it’s all right to be Orthodox.” Well, sometimes I have to say, “No, look, basically I’m one of those guys that you don’t want to be around. You may have to think about this again.” You know the little fish sign that “born-again Christians” wear? I got myself one of those the other day, to wear on my jacket. I got it in order to say, “I really am a Christian, not just Orthodox. I’m an Orthodox Christian.” When I went into the shop to buy the badge— a little evangelical shop down the road— the woman in the shop looked at me and I said to her: “This is about the only way that a Christian can get himself persecuted these days, you know, by wearing one of these things.” She looked at me really strangely and probably thought: “Wow, we’ve got a nut case here.” But it’s 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 “holier than thou.” Christians are these good people, smug people, people who are O.K. because they know that they’re saved, but the rest of the people…. 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 it’s important to receive some of that. You can’t be living life right if you don’t 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