Orthodox America

COME TO THE WATER A Convert's Journey to Holy Orthodoxy

Priest Steven Allen

In earliest childhood my Roman Catholic parents and teachers imparted to me the conviction that life on earth is transient, that death is inevitable, and that we must prepare for God's judgment. I always believed that there was one true Church, and that belonging to Her was not a light or superficial question, but a matter of spiritual life or death. Childhood impressions-the somber black vestments and the smell of incense at a funeral witnessed during lunch break at parochial school, a wonderful stained glass window depicting the Saviour's Mystical Supper with His disciples, a vivid picture in a catechism coloring book of Archangel Michael casting the fallen angels out of heaven-inflicted a wound incurable by earthly science: a nostalgia for Paradise, a desire for a return to the Father, a longing for heaven.

But how to get there. Where was the path to Paradise, the true way known by the apostles and martyrs, whose Lives filled my childish imagination, who were so real to me yet seemed so far away from my own life? As I grew into adolescence, well-meaning but wrong-thinking teachers filled my head with anti-religious and humanistic ideas in the name of the Church, ideas which I halfway accepted in youthful arrogance and intellectual pride, and which I tried to reconcile with being a Christian. But this did not satisfy me. Deep down I knew that Christ was the only truth, and that to properly understand and live out this truth was the only way to eternal life. But to whom could I turn to teach me this truth?

In high school I read the apologetic works of C.S. Lewis, which providentially saved me at this critical time from straying into relativism and unbelief. These writings gave me a philosophical defense for what Lewis calls "mere Christianity," and that was a start. But I knew it was not enough.

At the same time, I read the fantasy works of J.R.R. Tolkein. They played the important role of inspiring idealistic youth by examples of heroism, self-sacrifice, and violent struggle for the sake of good. But I knew that this was just fantasy. Where were the real heroes, the real fight which they fought? How could I enter their arena and win their prize? Finally, in the Roman Catholic seminary college I attended, a kind professor, a Benedictine monk, directed me to read the writings of the Holy Fathers of the early centuries of the Church. Like a forlorn prospector with the last ounce of his strength, who finds the long-sought-for lode of precious stone, I could not believe my eyes when I actually opened the pages of the Apostolic Fathers, the Apologists, the great Fathers of the fourth century, and the Lives of the early martyrs and monastic fathers. This was it! This was the way I had been searching for! But who possessed this life in our own time? This same professor, in successive classes on liturgy, sacred art and dogmatics, convinced me intellectually, beyond any reasonable doubt, that early Christianity had been radically different from the Roman Catholicism I knew, and that this tragic difference arose specifically at the time of the schism between Rome and the East. When I asked him who was right, Rome or the Orthodox, he said that the Orthodox were right. But when I asked him why he did not become Orthodox, he said ironically, "I am quite satisfied with the religious organization to which I belong." In other words, for all his accurate intellectual perceptions, he had given up on faith as life; he was satisfied with a dry, academic truth which did not change his life and could not save his soul. At this point, though I continued as his student for two more years, we parted ways in spirit, for I always had possessed a strong, unyielding urge to make my life conform to what I knew to be the truth. An intellectual acquaintance with Orthodoxy only whetted my thirst; it was not water for my thirsting soul.

So, from the age of twenty, I knew that the Orthodox Church was the one, true Church of Jesus Christ, but my fears and emotional insecurity held me back from converting. I flirted with Uniatism, as a way of pretending to be Orthodox while remaining under the Pope. I read books by Orthodox intellectuals which reassured me that it was somehow all right to be a Roman Catholic. I got involved in Roman Catholic social and political "good works," in order to distract myself somehow and ignore the pain of my soul. But this pain would not go away; I knew that, as long as I was not Orthodox, I was living a lie. Finally, as I lay awake one night in my bed at a Uniate seminary, it struck me with complete clarity that if I did not become Orthodox, I was disobeying God and risking losing my soul for all eternity. This was the simple, unvarnished truth, and no clever arguments could stand up against it. On October 22, 1983, I formally embraced the Orthodox Faith. Later, when I joined the Russian Church Abroad, I discovered that the day of my baptism was the feast of the Kazan Icon of the Mother of God, the day on which She delivered Moscow from the Roman Catholic Poles.

Now, by the inscrutable workings of God's grace, I am an Orthodox priest. When I meet Roman Catholics and other Western denomination Christians, I do not tell them first that I became Orthodox because of its correct teaching, though, of course, the Orthodox teaching is the correct one; I tell them that all my young life I sought the complete and saving way of life as lived by the Apostles and the Early Church, and that only in the bosom of the Orthodox Church can this LIFE be found. THIS is why I became Orthodox, and so should they. And so should you, dear reader, if you are not yet in this green pasture, this fount of living water, this saving Ark of the Church. Peace be to you. Amen.

St. Michael's Orthodox Church, Denver