Orthodox America

 Journey to Orthodoxy - Seraphim 

To describe my path to Orthodox Christianity not only reveals a philosophical/theological change, but a painful dislocation in terms of custom, language, and social contacts. Now, after years of wandering in the desert, I give glory to God for bringing me into the Promised Land, among His chosen people.

I was born of an unwed Jewish mother who had gone through the loss of two brothers and a mother at a very young age.  She met a gentile man, fell in love, and never told him of her pregnancy. Shortly after my birth, she married a Jewish barber in her neighborhood who wanted to avoid the draft through having a ready-made family.  As far as I was concerned-for many years-he was my natural father, and by all accounts he was a kind man who did the best he could as a provider.  The following years coalesce in my memory, but they, briefly, include the end of the war, a divorce and loss of an idyllic but modest rural home, a move to a tenement in a large city, a five-year stay in a Jewish orphanage, and-what seemed to be a marvelous escape-a five-year tour with the United States Air Force.

It was in the military, with its inherent problems for men little rooted in family-problems such as drinking, sexual encounters, gambling-that I felt a need for a relationship with whatever god I could incorporate into my life without much disruption of my routine.  I fell in love with a beautiful young woman, an observant member of the Roman Catholic Church.  At her urging I attended catechism classes with a priest/officer, Father Muldoon, whose Jesuit background appealed to my need to question and devise theoretical situations. I pictured myself with her on Sunday mornings, married, listening to the Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus of the priest, she and I staring as one into the heavens. What seemed, in retrospect, the enduring features of that period were a belief in Our Lord Jesus Christ as Saviour and a feeling that the Blessed Mother, the Theotokos (although that term was unknown to me then) was somehow nudging my to make a commitment divorced of my original  romantic reasons. Later at night I would visit the base church's Blessed Sacrament Room, which had a perpetually lighted statue of Mary, and I would kneel-sometimes after an evening of which I was not proud-to ask the Blessed Mother for strength and intercession with God. At that time for some reason I had little concept of Our Lord as central. He was merely one aspect of Christianity.

After the romance ended, I felt a great sense of shame, as if I, a representative of a people, many of whom had given their lives rejecting Christianity, had gone over to the "oppressors."  I returned to the synagogue determined that although I secretly believed in the Resurrection, had an affection for the Mother of God, and even a feeling that an angel was prodding me to "go public" with these feelings, that I would suppress them and be what I was born to be: an observant Jew.

Since my mother was a Jew, it was of no consequence-other than in social circles-that I was half a Jew; I was the right half!  The synagogue comforted me: in a traditional orthodox synagogue the men, separate from the women, feel somewhat free to wander out of the confines of "pews." They make movements that duplicate those of a flame reaching toward God. During the most holy time of the year the men wear a white robe, symbolizing freedom from the sins of the past and God's forgiveness, and at a particularly intense moment fully prostrate themselves.  It is important to mention that this beautiful moment is viewed by many moderns as ostentatious piety.

The morning prayers were particularly comforting: the tallit (prayer shawl) covering my head and upper body; the small black compartments containing scripture wrapped around my arm and head with black straps, tightly impressing the law; and the swift kiss I bestowed on the shawl's fringes at appropriate times. And during early morning public prayer, the dimly lit figures swaying to the age-old chants brought a feeling of kinship with every Jew whose lips had ever moved in prayer.  Something was missing, however-something that seemed necessary to complete the picture of rootedness: a family.

I married into a somewhat liberal Jewish family, whose idea of spirituality was that if one does less then them, he is a pagan; more, and he is a fanatic. In this somewhat restrictive environment, I began to become more rigid in my opinions and retreated into ritualistic behavior, much of which I now realize was to attack the opposition-my family.  What I did was not in a loving way, but with frustration and a sense of correctness!

After seventeen years of marriage, my wife and I divorced, and the only consolation I had in terms of my behavior is that I provided generous financial support and left all funds and the house to my wife in order that the children would have decent living quarters. Other than that, I felt a failure as a husband and father.  This realization and the fact that I had moved into a YMCA where there happened to be many others who had gone through traumatic ties did not make matters better.  And when my son was sent to jail after having been sentenced for dealing in drugs, I reached my lowest point.  After one particularly emotional visit to the jail, I decided that this would be my last wretched day on earth, and sobbing without any concern for the guards or other visitors and what they thought, I got into my car, deciding that I would find a road and apply the gas until I crashed into an appropriate object.  For whatever reason-perhaps fear, I can't remember-I wound up in my living quarters on my knees, for the first time in my life asking the Lord for forgiveness and help with my life. At some point I felt a sudden sense of peace and intimacy with God that had never come to me before.

When I was on my feet, my practical nature took over, and I wondered what to do next.  I knew that I needed a church home in which to grow and brothers and sisters in Christ who would keep me on the path. The only source of information that came to me at that time was the Billy Graham organization; somehow I trusted him and his motives.  I called their 800 counseling number to tell the woman on the other end that I had just accepted the Lord and didn't know where to go from there.  Based on whatever I told her-and it was a wonderful session with prayer and encouragement-she felt that there were three churches in my geographical area that would be suitable.  The first one she mentioned was an Assembly of God (pentecostal) church, although she admitted to being a conservative, non-tongues speaking Baptist; however, she felt that my desire for animated worship and lively fellowship might be best met at that church.  When I called the number, I told the secretary what had happened, and she prayed with me and welcomed me to a service.  I have no reason to regret that move.  During the eighteen months I affiliated with the church, I sang with the choir, prayed along with other Christians, and met once a week with a small home prayer group where we encouraged each other in our spiritual growth.  Although I realized that the congre-gation had a problem with theology-there were almost as many theologies as families-I knew that I was imbibing the milk of Christianity, not quite ready for anything more solid.

Then something happened which seemed a routine part of my job as a book selector in a local public library. Father Eugene and his church librarian asked to meet with me to donate a substantial number of books on Eastern Orthodoxy-a faith that I assumed was a Moscow branch of the Vatican, particularly since this was a Russian Orthodox church. Many churches and other organizations had met with me to donate money or books, with the understanding that I would review the material before placing it in the collection.  On those other occasions, I looked for reviews, the reputations of the authors and publishers, and any other sources-I rarely did more than read through small portions of the texts themselves just to look for care in editing and stylistic matters.  This was a different matter. A new world opened up filled with names like Ware, Hopko, Seraphim Rose, A Monk of the Eastern Church, Saint Seraphim of Sarov. . . This is what had been missing all these years, this amalgam of the true apostolic Church, acknowledgment of the world, mysticism, theology, and the heaven on earth of the church Liturgy, the icons crying out to me, "You have found the true faith. . . " My first visit to the Orthodox Church felt as if an entire synagogue had suddenly accepted the Lord, directing their prayers now toward the Risen Christ and the Saints. The candles, the veneration of objects (in this case, icons), body language, psalms, organization of the Liturgy, all directed toward the "peak moment"-receiving the Body and Blood of Our Lord; in the synagogue the removal of the sacred Torah scrolls, and before their reading, the reverent kissing of the scrolls while a hymn of praise is sung by all, is that moment-I wish now that the Holy Spirit had come to my congregation and moved them in the same way I have since been moved.

But this was not going to be the usual "confess your faith and join the flock" sort of move that so matched my impulsive personality.  Each time I asked how long it would take to be a member, Father Eugene told me that each catechumen is an individual and that this was an important step. One doesn't receive the Heavenly Spirit casually.  In fact, nothing seemed to be done casually or in a careless, impromptu manner. I felt excluded each time the membership lined up to receive communion. When I heard the words, ". . . I will not speak of Thy mysteries . . .," I realized that this was not a quick fix or a once-a-year option; this was The Church, my opportunity to live the rest of my life with purpose, knowing that the Comforter and the Saints are here with me.  The chrismation did take place when I was ready for it, and Seraphim-my new name-is still not perfect (each morning I ask to be cleansed from every impurity). I know that death-previously my greatest fear-is, in the words of the Church, repose and rest.  And I affirm with fellow Orthodox that Christ is Risen. Should my words cause anyone to think that I have become a sterling Orthodox parishioner, I want to provide a corrective. There are times when I want to give up.  Perhaps someone or other doesn't greet me in just the right way; at times I feel awkward and false when I attempt to join into some of the social activities or ethnic practices-and I am not certain which are practices closely tied to decisions of an Ecumenical Council and which were imported from small towns in Pennsylvania. To tell the truth, I want to be comfortable with those practices also. I love the Slavonic sounds and melodies, the feeling when I am with some of the elders of the church that there is something of Mother Russia there with me. But, it's still important to grow in the basics of Orthodoxy and not merely be "blown to and fro by every wind. . ." There is my spiritual father, the Liturgy, the Body and Blood of my Saviour, and the Whole Church, including my fellow struggling Orthodox, all of us praying the same prayers for ourselves and this entire Church we love so much.


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