Journey to Orthodoxy

As an Orthodox priest, I am often asked the question, "How is it that you, a Latvian, were drawn to embrace such a non-traditional Faith? After all, Latvians are predominantly either Lutheran or Roman Catholic." It grieves me that so many people have a narrow, nationalist understanding of Orthodoxy.
Priest Janis Kalnins | 05 June 2005

As an Orthodox priest, I am often asked the question, “How is it that you, a Latvian, were drawn to embrace such a non-traditional Faith? After all, Latvians are predominantly either Lutheran or Roman Catholic.”

It grieves me that so many people have a narrow, nationalist understanding of Orthodoxy. In my reply I always emphasize that I was led to Orthodoxy purely by my search for the truth, my search for God. At that time I knew nothing about the history of Orthodoxy in Latvia; I didn’t know about New Martyr Archbishop John (Pomer), nor the fact that at one time there were in Latvia some 100,000 Orthodox Latvians. How did I come to Orthodoxy? As a child I was baptized into the Lutheran Church. I don’t remember being taken to church after that. As I grew older I would occasionally visit various churches. Already then I was keenly aware that I was missing something; but just what this was, I didn’t know.

During this period I experienced a number of mystifying incidents which convinced me of the reality of another, invisible world. As a schoolboy I loved tinkering with radios-which caused me no little frustration since parts were difficult to come by and I was always short of money. One day I was beside myself, trying to think how to get some needed parts, when I heard a voice, “Go to the trash bin; there you’ll find what you need.” Indeed, in the dumpster I found a small case with some used but still serviceable radio parts.

I read piles of books, but none of them satisfied the gnawing emptiness in my heart. There was the Bible, but I’d never even seen a copy, until… My education continued at an agricultural institute. One day, on a field trip, we passed an old run-down farmhouse. Everyone else went into the yard to pick apples, but I crawled through a window into the house. Again, I heard an inner voice, “Hunt around and you’ll find a Bible.” There were a lot of old books and if I weren’t so certain I would meet with success I wouldn’t have bothered to look. Sure enough, at the last minute I found it; it was falling apart and its cover was missing but I recognized it at once. No sooner had I opened it and begun to read than I heard a honking, signalling it was time to leave. I don’t know why I left the Bible there; perhaps because its pages were moldy and I thought it was too old. When I told my mother about my discovery she scolded me for not taking it; at that time in Latvia copies of the Scriptures were a rarity. Later I made a special trip back to that farmhouse, but the Bible was gone. I managed to borrow a copy for a short time, but after reading a few passages I realized that to understand it was beyond me, and I set it aside.

This contact with an invisible yet existing reality sharpened my desire for answers. In searching for explanations I was led into the realm of parapsychology. This in turn opened the door into the occult, into the world of yoga and various other “systems”. Without going into detail, it is enough to note that these teachings are designed to produce a particular world view, to fundamentally change one’s perception of the world and one’s relationship to others. There occurs a gradual transformation of the person’s consciousness; he begins to see things he never saw before and to employ certain powers he never even imagined existed. All this is tied to certain physical and psychic practices, to a certain way of life. What seems at first glance to be innocent physical exercises, when practiced with concentration and accompanied by rhythmic breathing, attain startling effects. Many of our group, when we engaged in these gymnastics, experienced tremendous shocks of energy, so strong as to throw us to the ground; they would cause us to convulse, as if we were having epileptic fits.

Members of our group began experiencing other supernatural phenomena, such as leaving the body and passing through various physical obstacles: walls, doors, etc.; there were cases of levitation. I should emphasize, however, that the basic aim of our group-there were about ten of us-was to find God, and therefore we weren’t particularly captivated by these phenomena. I think that most of us, rather than finding all this to be exciting, even felt an indefinable weariness. There were so many “systems”, each one talked about God. We were by now familiar also with the Holy Scriptures, but Christ Himself remained an enigma.

It was during that time that many of us came to a fundamental turning point in our lives. It began when a friend of mine met a woman who was able to set forth in a way easy to understand the basic teachings of Christianity. About the same time I had a dream: it was as if I had been sentenced to death, but I arose with Christ. On sharing our thoughts, my friend and I decided we should visit this woman together.

Listening to her was at times very difficult. I couldn’t understand why I sensed in her an altogether different spirit, why Christ was the only door to God. Later, sitting in a yoga posture, I was overcome by a sense of bewilderment. Over the course of several months I came to a complete revaluation of values. Undoubtedly, prayers for my soul were more powerful than my psychic arts. Besides, I was sincerely lost; my purpose had always been-to find God.

It is impossible to adequately describe what went on in my soul during this transitional period. Aware that the path leading to the attainment of higher levels of consciousness was not the path to truth but, rather, the path to non-existence, I was desperate to leave it. Those occult powers which I commanded fell upon me with a vengeance. Imagine someone virtually transformed by esoteric teachings, someone who attained the manipulation of consciousness, who created within himself an “observer” as it were, of his own “self”, and who wants to rid himself of all this, to forget it-but cannot. The “observer” dictates his own will. Every thought, every feeling is automatically subject to manipulation, ascending through various levels of consciousness. The loss of control creates in the soul a feeling of panic; nerves fray; there is a smell of death. No doubt I was given a taste of those torments of hell reserved for apostates. Realizing that the truth was not in me, I no longer trusted any thoughts, any feelings which came to me. I dismissed everything, begging God to grant me discernment: which thoughts and feelings were from Him and which from the devil. Blurred distinctions between good and evil gradually drew into focus. At first it was hard to make myself pray, but when I intensified my efforts, it became for me a necessity. Sometimes while standing at prayer I felt such a clarity of thought, but as soon as I stopped I was gripped by a fear that I would lose my mind.

This warfare lasted two or three years before the effects of my involvement in the paranormal were largely destroyed.

I began participating in an unofficial group resembling the Baptists. They helped me considerably, and at first I found satisfaction there. However, I couldn’t help noticing their limitations. Despite their considerable knowledge of Scripture, these people lacked spiritual leadership, spiritual life. Nevertheless, I consciously submitted myself to this group, but in doing so I was troubled to notice that my former zeal for God disappeared, the love that I had grew cold. This bothered me, and when my differences with the group surfaced in a confrontation with the leaders, it was an easy decision to part company.

I was alone again with my thoughts and my unresolved inner conflicts. The spiritual warfare took its toll on my health. There was a time when I felt I hadn’t the strength to go on living. It was then I learned what it meant to be humble before God, and that this humility was a great weapon, a protection against demons. It was then I learned the Jesus Prayer-“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

I wandered in search of the true Church, but there was always something that repelled me: I didn’t like the long academic sermonizing in the Lutheran churches; in the Roman Catholic churches I couldn’t accept the fact that laity were communed only with the Body of Christ, when Christ Himself blessed also the cup with wine, which was invisibly transformed into His Blood; I already had a fair grasp of what the Baptists and Protestants were about. By chance I attended an Orthodox service at the Riga convent. Seeing at the back of church people writing something on slips of paper, I wrote down my own prayer request: “Pray that the Lord would grant me to know the true faith and that He would use me according to His will.” A nun read my note and said she was even going to fast for me. For several months I continued to wander about from church to church, but my conscience was now turning me towards Orthodoxy, and in spite of what I had been taught about icons being idols and other misinformation, I followed the promptings of my heart.

In choosing Orthodoxy I was greatly assisted by the writings of the Holy Fathers. Today there are so many sects, each with its own peculiar interpretation of the Bible. The saints, on the other hand, some of whom were centuries apart, share the same spirit, the same teaching; a teaching which stands on the firm foundation of true “theology”-knowledge of God. What more striking evidence that the Orthodox Faith is that spiritual treasure which Christ promises to those who seek it.

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