My Journey to Orthodoxy
(Part 1 of Fr. John’s article was published in the October 1997 issue of the Dawn. Both it and the following were originally published in the SS. George & Alexandra’s monthly newsletter, “The Mustard Seed”, which is used successfully as an outreach tool by this mission. In fact, we understand that this “Part 2” is a response to requests for a follow up to Part 1, by readers of “The Mustard Seed”.)
In part one of this article we traced my journey from a youth to becoming an ordained Southern Baptist minister, and then my journey to becoming Orthodox. This, however, did not answer the question, “why did this former Southern Baptist minister become an Orthodox priest?” That is the question that we will attempt to answer here.
When I became Orthodox it was not a given that I would become one day an Orthodox priest. As one bishop expressed it to me, “the difference between being an Orthodox priest and a Baptist minister is the difference between flying a crop duster and a 747 jet. I like to think of it in terms of a person who after growing up in a small town moves to a big city. In the small town there would be a sense of security in knowing everyone in it and everyone knowing you. In time, there would be almost nothing about that town and its people that one did not know. In the big city many things would be familiar as well, such as McDonalds, Burger King, the gas stations, convenient stores, houses and cars. However, there would be many things that would be new and unfamiliar. Moreover, there would be no hope of one day knowing almost everything about the city and its people. This would be a real stretching time in one’s life.
In like manner many things were familiar to me in the Orthodox Church. The Bible, which I cut my teeth on, was utilized more in the Orthodox Church than in any Church I had been in before. Prayer, which was a big part of my life, was so emphasized in the Orthodox Church that people were urged to learn to pray without ceasing. And once again, I had never been in a Church which was so devoted to corporate prayer. Praise and thanksgiving to God, which I wanted to be a real part of my Christian experience, was not limited to a few hymns, but permeated everything in the worship of the Orthodox Church. Fasting, which I had done on my own, periodically, was now a part of a regular pattern of life for the Christian. In fact, the Orthodox have a hard time imagining that a person in good health, could claim to be a Christian and not fast. My concern for correct doctrine, especially doctrines concerned with who Christ is and the Holy Trinity, were not only preached, but were also part of the warp and woof of the Orthodox hymnology. I had never heard such dogmatic hymns before. My desire for evangelism, which one does not always find in Orthodox parishes, was to be found throughout the history of the Orthodox Church, where whole cultures and nations were converted to Christ. My concern for the poor and the needy, although lacking in some parishes, was heavily stressed and lived out with many shining examples (in the Church’s life). My desire for spiritual gifts, although not emphasized in the lives of many Orthodox believers, were demonstrated in the most genuine and powerful expressions of them. Everything that was familiar to me as part of genuine Christianity was found in the Orthodox Church to a fuller measure.
The many different kinds of Church services, the feast and fast days of the Church, the Orthodox ethos, the smells and bells, the vestments and pageantry, the style of singing and chanting in the Church, were quite foreign to me. At times it felt like I had entered a time machine and had been dropped off in some distant…past. I knew that like the man moving to the big city, I would never know everything about Orthodoxy.
I had so much to learn. This was not restricted to the liturgical life of the Church. I needed to begin to penetrate into the depth of Orthodox doctrine. I needed to become more familiar with the Fathers of the Church. I needed to learn the lives of the saints. But most importantly, I needed to learn to live an authentic Orthodox life. I needed to learn to die to self, to be accountable to my spiritual father, to explore the dark and hidden things in my heart. I needed to learn to pray in an Orthodox manner.
With so much to learn, although I had felt called to the ministry from my youth, I was not certain that I would ever be ready for the task of leading others on this path on which I had just begun to travel. I read, “On the Priesthood” by St. John Chrysostom, and I became even more reluctant to pursue ordination. The responsibility was awesome indeed. I became very involved in our Orthodox Mission, eventually serving as church warden, reader and choir director. But it was through the strong and constant encouragement of my parish priest, Fr. John Anderson, that I enrolled in extension studies at St. Tikhon’s Seminary.
Having a theological background and being a student at the Baptist Seminary I attended, I thought this would be a piece of cake. I knew how to do research, and to write papers. I even enjoyed taking exams. But this new course of study was indeed a challenge for me. My introduction to Orthodox Christian Doctrine, taught by the Archpriest Theodore Heckman, really stretched me. I could not believe that an introduction class would be so profound and deep. At the same time, there was no room in these courses for vain speculation or novel theological free thinking, which was even found in my Baptist education. Nor was this dry high minded sterile theology. Rather it taught me that a true theologian was one who prayed, and one who prayed was a theologian. Learning facts without letting them change one’s life was the mark of a most perverse soul. I traveled there many times. I was impressed with the location of the seminary in the beautiful Pocono Mountains. But what I was most impressed with was that it was located next to the oldest Orthodox monastery in North America. There was a depth in the lives of many of the monks there. Not only did they live a life of prayer, but one of humility, joy and peace. I felt I could learn much from men such as these.
My wife and I made plans to move out there in four years. She needed to go back to school so that she could become more marketable. We made sure that one of us was with the children when the other was gone. During the course of her studies in Respiratory Care, she became sick one night with the flu. This was just before she was to take her final exam. Her instructor had a policy that there were no make ups for her exams. My wife and I prayed that God would heal her. At two in the morning, I heard a sound in the bedroom. When I woke up, there was an angel standing by my wife. I made the sign of the cross, in case this was not an angel of the Lord. The angel did not go away. I watched speechless for about five minutes and then the angel disappeared. When my wife woke up, her first words were, “I feel great”. God had sent his angel to heal my wife! As things turned out, she ended up graduating number one in her class.
As we came closer to the time of departing for seminary, my wife received a telephone call, on February 2, 1987, from a friend of ours who lived on Long Island. When he found out that my wife had not yet lined up a job, he told her that you have to hammer people on the East Coast if you hope to land a job. “This is not like California”, he insisted. My wife, Debra, took his words seriously, and contacted all the hospitals at which she had put in applications. None of them had any openings. Finally, she called every hospital listed in the greater Scranton area. When she called Mid Valley Hospital, they told her that they had an immediate opening, but they could not keep it open long. They offered her the job with all the benefits and one dollar per hour more than normal just through a phone interview! When she called the Seminary, the Academic Dean, Archpriest Daniel K. Donlick, was talking with Archpriest John Kowalczyk over the need to rent a house owned by Fr. Kowalczyk’s parish in Jermyn. They wanted a seminarian family in it, but were about to rent it to another family. The house was located 10 minutes from the hospital and it was the right size and price for our family. Through two phone calls, my wife had her job, and we had our house. This sure looked like the hand of God to us.
At the seminary things did not go as well as we had hoped financially. In fact, at times things looked pretty bleak. I was encouraged by a fellow seminarian, now the Rev. Emil Hutynan, who shared how his priest said, “If you want to be a priest, God will provide what you need when you need it, and no more.” How true these words would prove to be. When our engine blew on our car, an anonymous donor from St. Michael’s Church in Jermyn provided for it. When the family needed winter clothes, a bag of nice clothing would be found on our door step. When the food bill needed to be stretched, someone provided a freezer full of fresh butchered deer meat. This kind of provision continues (in our lives) even to this day. For example, when I became a priest and living in Waymart, Pennsylvania, we received the news over the phone that we needed $300.00 for car repair expenses from a hit-and-run accident. My wife and I sat at the table asking each other how we were going to be able to pay for this. We sent our son out to the mail box, and when he opened the front door, there was a blank envelope with $300.00 cash in it.
In my final semester at the seminary, the Archbishop, Herman, saw fit to ordain me, unworthy though I be, to the priesthood. I never really felt that I was able to do this, but God works in earthen vessels and His strength is made manifest in our weakness. He makes up what is lacking in us, and does abundantly above all that we ask or think.
May God use the story of this spiritual journey to strengthen you on your spiritual journey, to the glory of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. (Reprinted with the author’s permission.)