Strange Yet Familiar: My Journey to the Orthodox Church (Part I)

In Britain in the 1950s it was a highly unusual step for a Western person to seek entry into the Orthodox Church, and most of my English friends did their best to dissuade me. "You will be a lifelong eccentric," they objected. "God has set you culturally in the West; do not run away from the quandaries and the challenge of your historical inheritance."
| 12 January 2009

Source: Myriobiblos



From his book: “The Inner Kingdom“, St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2001.

Heaven and earth are united today.
Hymn from the Vigil on Christmas Eve

O strange Orthodox Church!
Father Lev Gillet

First Part

An absence and a presence

I can remember exactly when my personal journey to Orthodoxy began. It happened quite unexpectedly one Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1952, when I was seventeen. I was walking along Buckingham Palace Road, close to Victoria Station in central London, when I passed a nineteenth-century Gothic church, large and somewhat dilapidated, that I had never noticed before. There was no proper notice-board outside it — public relations have never been the strong point of Orthodoxy in the Western world! — but I recall that there was a brass plate which simply said “Russian Church.”

As I entered St Philip’s — for that was the name of the church — at first I thought that it was entirely empty. Outside in the street there had been brilliant sunshine, but inside it was cool, cavernous and dark. As my eyes grew accustomed to the gloom, the first thing that caught my attention was an absence. There were no pews, no chairs in neat rows; in front of me stretched a wide and vacant expanse of polished floor.

Then I realized that the church was not altogether empty. Scattered in the nave and aisles there were a few worshipers, most of them elderly. Along the walls there were icons, with flickering lamps in front of them, and at the east end there were burning candles in front of the icon screen. Somewhere out of sight a choir was singing. After a while a deacon came out from the sanctuary and went round the church censing the icons and the people, and I noticed that his brocade vestment was old and slightly torn.

My initial impression of an absence was now replaced, with a sudden rush, by an overwhelming sense of presence. I felt that the church, so far from being empty, was full — full of countless unseen worshipers, surrounding me on every side. Intuitively I realized that we, the visible congregation, were part of a much larger whole, and that as we prayed we were being taken up into an action far greater than ourselves, into an undivided, all-embracing celebration that united time and eternity, things below with things above.

Years later, with a strange shock of recognition, I came across the story of St Vladimir’s conversion, recorded in the Russian Primary Chronicle. Returning to Kiev, the Russian envoys told the Prince about the Divine Liturgy which they had attended in Constantinople. “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth,” they said. “For on earth there is no such splendor or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We only know that God dwells there among men… For we cannot forget that beauty.” [The Russian Primary Chronicle, tr. S. H. Cross and 0. P. Sherbowitz-Wetzor (Cambridge, MA: The Mediaeval Academy of America, 1953), III ]. I started with amazement as I read those words, for such exactly had been my own experience at the Russian Vigil Service in St Philip’s, Buckingham Palace Road. The outward setting lacked the splendor of tenth-century Byzantium, but like St Vladimir’s emissaries I too had encountered “heaven on earth.” I too had felt the immediacy of the celestial Liturgy, the closeness of the angels and the saints, the uncreated beauty of God’s Kingdom. “Now the powers of heaven worship with us invisibly” (The Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts).

Before the service had ended, I left the church; and as I emerged I was struck by two things. First, I found that I had no idea how long I had been inside. It might have been only twenty minutes, it might have been two hours; I could not say. I had been existing on a level at which clock-time was unimportant. Secondly, as I stepped out on the pavement the roar of the London traffic engulfed me all at once like a huge wave. The sound must have been audible within the church, but I had not noticed it. I had been in another world where time and traffic had no meaning; a world that was more real — I would almost say more solid — than that of twentieth-century London to which I now abruptly returned.

Everything at the Vigil Service was in Slavonic, and so with my conscious brain I could understand not a single word. Yet, as I left the church, I said to myself with a clear sense of conviction: This is where I belong; I have come home. Sometimes it happens — is it not curious? — that, before we have learnt anything in detail about a person, place or subject, we know with certainty: This is the person that I shall love, this is the place where I need to go, this is the subject that, above all others, I must spend my life exploring. From the moment of attending that service at St Philip’s, Buckingham Palace Road, I felt deep in my heart that I was marked out for the Orthodox Church. (The church, incidentally, has long since disappeared; it was demolished about four years after my visit.)

I am grateful that my initial contact with Orthodoxy was not through reading books, nor yet through meeting members of the Orthodox Church in a social context, but through attending an act of worship. The Church, according to the Orthodox understanding, is primarily a liturgical community, which expresses its true self through invocation and doxology. Worship comes first, doctrine and discipline second. I was fortunate, then, to discover Orthodoxy first of all by participating in an act of corporate prayer. I encountered the Orthodox Church not as a theory or an ideology, but as a concrete and specific fact, as a worshiping presence.

“This is what I have always believed…”

In retrospect it is clear to me that my mind was already made up on that summer afternoon in 1952. Before being actually received, however, I waited for nearly six years. In Britain in the 1950s it was a highly unusual step for a Western person to seek entry into the Orthodox Church, and most of my English friends did their best to dissuade me. “You will be a lifelong eccentric,” they objected. “God has set you culturally in the West; do not run away from the quandaries and the challenge of your historical inheritance.” However beautiful Orthodox worship might be, was there not (they asked) a tragic gap between Orthodox principles and Orthodox practice? Was not my approach to Orthodoxy too idealized, too sentimental? Was I perhaps looking for a security and protection that we can never enjoy here on earth, and should not seek?

Less predictably, most of the Orthodox whose counsel I sought likewise offered me little encouragement. They were honest and realistic — and for this I remain grateful — in directing my attention to the historical shortcomings of the Orthodox Church, as well as to the particular difficulties it confronts in the Western world. There was much in Orthodoxy, so they warned me that was very far from “heaven on earth”! When I approached the assistant bishop at the Greek Cathedral in London, Bishop James (Virvos) of Apamaea, he spoke to me kindly and at length, but urged me to remain a member of the Anglican Church in which I had been brought up. A Russian priest to whom I spoke in Paris gave me exactly the same advice.

At the time this puzzled me. In my reading about Orthodoxy I had quickly discovered that it claims to be, not just one among many alternative “denominations,” but the true Church of Christ on earth. Yet it seemed as if the Orthodox themselves were telling me, “Yes, Orthodoxy is indeed the one true Church, but you should on no account join it. It is only for us Easterners, Greeks, Russians and the rest.” Adherence to the saving truth appeared to depend on the accidents of birth and geography.

With hindsight I can appreciate better why Bishop James spoke as he did. Forty or fifty years ago there were many Orthodox, and also many Anglicans, who sincerely hoped that the Anglican communion would be reconciled to Orthodoxy in a corporate way. Individual conversions from Anglicanism to the Orthodox Church were therefore discouraged; Anglicans, it was felt, would do better to remain where they were, and to work for unity from within their present Church, acting as an “Anglo-Orthodox” leaven.

I fear that these hopes for corporate reunion were always unrealistic. But it has to be remembered that, during the first half of the twentieth century, the moderate “High Church” party within Anglicanism — which bases itself upon an appeal to the Ecumenical Councils and the Fathers — was far stronger than it is today, whereas the extreme “liberal” tendency, with its doctrinal and moral relativism, was much less pronounced, although already plainly in evidence. At any rate Bishop James was by no means alone in his dream that High Anglicanism might eventually develop into the nucleus of a native-grown Western Orthodoxy.

Bishop James also had pastoral reasons. None of his parishes at that time used any English in their Sunday worship, and only a few of his clergy spoke anything but Greek. He was unwilling to accept British people into his care, lacking as he did the resources to look after them. In this he was surely in large measure justified; it is grossly irresponsible for Orthodox clergy to receive converts, and after that to do nothing further about them. (I can think of many cases where this has in fact happened.) Converts need to be integrated into a living community; they should not just be thrown in at the deep end of the Orthodox swimming-pool, and then left to their own devices to sink or swim.

Besides this, as I now realize, Bishop James wished to test me. Seeing my eagerness to become Orthodox, he wanted me to look carefully at the arguments on the other side. He knew that, if I was serious, I would come back to him again. And so indeed it turned out.

Meanwhile, some time before I had gone to see Bishop James, I began to develop a variety of Orthodox contacts. Shortly after my first experience of Orthodox worship at the Russian church in London, I started my university course at Oxford. For four years I studied Classics-ancient Greek and Latin, with some modern philosophy-and then I stayed on at the university for two further years of theology. (Incidentally, I never went to an Anglican theological college, nor was I ordained in the Church of England.) At Oxford I had the chance to meet Orthodox Christians at first hand. In particular I came to know Nicolas Zernov, the University Lecturer in Eastern Orthodox Culture, and I still recall with pleasure the generous hospitality dispensed by him and his wife Militza, and the exhilarating and unpredictable conversations that they used to initiate with their many guests. I also met Father (later Archbishop) Basil Krivocheine, who officiated at the small Russian chapel in Oxford, and who was preparing his classic edition of the Catecheses of St Symeon the New Theologian. A new world opened up before me as I heard him read St Symeon’s description of his visions of the divine and uncreated Light, and I began to appreciate the central place assigned in Orthodoxy to the mystery of Christ’s Transfiguration.

While at Oxford, under the influence of my close friend from school days, Donald (A. M.) Allchin, I became an active member of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, whose aim is to promote rapprochement between Orthodoxy and Anglicanism. The summer conferences of the Fellowship had a decisive effect on me. Here I listened to such Anglicans as Archbishop Michael Ramsey, Father Derwas Chitty, and Professor H. A. Hodges, all of whom regarded Orthodoxy as the integral fullness of the Christian tradition, to which Anglicanism needed to return. As they saw it, Anglicans could hold the full Orthodox faith while still remaining in the Church of England, and in this manner we could help to bring our fellow-Anglicans nearer to Orthodoxy.

Their enthusiasm fired my imagination, but a part of me remained unsatisfied. I longed to be Orthodox in a total and visible way. The more I learnt about Orthodoxy, the more I realized: this is what I have always believed in my inmost self, but never before did I hear it so well expressed. I did not find Orthodoxy archaic, foreign or exotic. To me it was nothing other than simple Christianity.

The Church is One

My early contacts with the Orthodox world were for the most part Russian. I devoured such books as A Treasury of Russian Spirituality by G. P. Fedotov, and With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem by Stephen Graham. I was immediately attracted to St Seraphim of Sarov, about whom I learnt from Iulia de Beausobre’s slightly fictionalized but deeply moving account Flame in the Snow. On the more theological level a crucial landmark in my journey was Alexis Khomiakov’s short essay “The Church is One.” Here I found, verbally expressed, that vision of the communion of saints which I had first experienced as a living reality at the Russian church in London:

The Church is one, notwithstanding her division, as it appears to a man who is still alive on earth… Those who are alive on earth, those who have finished their earthly course, those who, like the angels, were not created for a life on earth, those in future generations who have not yet begun their earthly course, are all united together in one Church, in one and the same grace of God…The Church visible, or upon earth, lives in complete communion and unity with the whole body of the Church, of which Christ is the head… The Church, even upon earth, lives not an earthly life, but a life which is divine, and of grace… There is one God, and one Church [Alexis Khomiakov, “The Church is One,” in W. J. Birkbeck (ed.), Russia and the English Church during the Last Fifty Years (London: Eastern Church Association, 1895), 193-94, 211, 222 ].

In later years, as I read more widely in Orthodox theology, I came to recognize the limitations of Khomiakov’s Slavophil ecclesiology, but at the time he provided me with exactly what I needed. I was also greatly helped by Father Georges Florovsky’s article, “Sobornost: the Catholicity of the Church,” in which he emphasizes the essential nature of the Church as a unity-in-diversity after the image and likeness of God the Holy Trinity:

The realm of the Church is unity. And of course this unity is no outward one, but is inner, intimate, and organic. It is the unity of the living body, the unity of the organism. The Church is a unity not only in the sense that it is one and unique; it is a unity, first of all, because it’s very being consists in reuniting separated and divided mankind. It is this unity which is the “sbornost”or catholicity of the Church. In the Church humanity passes over into another plane, begins a new manner of existence. A new life becomes possible, a true, whole and complete life, a catholic life, “in the unity of the Spirit, in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:3). A new existence begins, a new principle of life, “even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee, that they also may be in Us… that they may be one even as We are one” Jn 17:21-23). This is the mystery of the final reunion in the image of the Unity of the Holy Trinity [ Georges Florovsky, “Sobornost the Catholicity of the Church,” in E. L. Mascall (ed.), The Church of God. An Anglo-Russian Symposium by Members of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius (London: SPCK, 1934) 55 (italics in the original). This article is reprinted in Vol. 1 of Florovsky’s Collected Works (Belmont, MA: Nordland, 1972)].

Catholicity, Father Georges adds, “means seeing our own self in another, in the beloved one;” “Sobornost,” 59. and it is in the catholicity of the Church, and there alone, that “the painful duality and tension between freedom and authority is solved.” “Sobornost,” 73. Throughout my later life I have constantly returned to this article, which says far more in twenty-one pages than most authors manage to say in whole volumes.

While it was chiefly from the Russians that I received my initial insight into Orthodoxy, during my first visit to Greece in 1954 the spiritual world of Byzantium also won my allegiance. As a Classicist my main purpose had been to look at the Acropolis, Olympia, Delphi and Knossos. So, when my traveling companions included Sparta in our itinerary, I protested. Were not the Spartans mere gymnasts and militarists, who had left behind them no monument worthy of a detour? In fact what my friends were taking me to visit was not Sparta itself but the Byzantine town of Mistra three miles beyond. Here I was delighted to see before me not just a few scattered ruins but an entire city rising up the hillside — streets, palaces, monasteries, many-domed churches — all set against the spectacular back-drop of the snow-covered Taygetus range. Looking at the frescoed saints alive on the church walls, like W B. Yeats I found in them “the singing-masters of my soul.”


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