Retired university faculty, Orthodox and conservative (my regular blog is named Right Wing Nation, if that tells you anything). For a rather long and detailed bio, focusing primarily on my faith, scroll down.
I was born in Louisville, Kentucky, but grew up across the Ohio River, in rural, heavily German Catholic Southern Indiana, what has been called the Blue Army Belt (all of the German Lutherans went to Wisconsin and Minnesota, and the Bavarian Catholics settled in the Ohio River Valley. Think Strassenfest, Oktoberfest, Uebelhor Motors, brats and beer, and Stille Nacht instead of Silent Night.)
My paternal grandfather was from Conception, Missouri (there’s a monastery there), and married my grandmother, a local girl. My maternal grandfather was from Appalachia (West Virginia), and married my grandmother, another local girl. My grandfathers were ausländer, and my grandmothers, locals. Both of my parents were only children, odd for their generation and the area, but both because my grandmothers could have no more children, and almost died during childbirth.
I was born in the fifties. My father’s family were Catholics, and my mother’s farmily were Campbellites (churches descending from the Restoration Movement in the Second Great Awakening: The Disciples of Christ, the Independent Christian Church insitutional, the Independent Christian Church non-institutional, and the Church of Christ). About the only similarity was the weekly celebration of communion (weekly communion was one of the reasons the Restoration churches split from the Presbyterians). I was the eldest, and my Protestant mother had agreed to raise me Catholic, although it was my grandparents who did that. I don’t think my father was anything, really, may he rest in peace, and I probably don’t have to tell you that religious affiliation, particularly embodied in me and my mother’s promise, was a source of strife between the two sides of my family.
When I was 12, my father and grandfather’s relationship broke down, and for the first time, I was in the middle of a tug-of-war on Sundays. When I was 15, my grandfather feel asleep in the Lord, and I was old enough to stand up for myself and go to Mass on Sundays. I inherited my grandfather’s rosary and prayer books, which I still have, and treasure. When my grandmother passed away, I inherited the family Bible.
The new missal (Novus Ordo) was about to come out, but even after it did, change was slow to come to that area. By the time I was an undergraduate in the early 70s (I was a charismatic Catholic as an undergraduate; I may write about that at some point in the future, but not now), I had other problems, alcohol and drugs (it runs in the family). I got clean and sober in 1979, and because I hungered for God, I went back to Mass.
To paraphrase Gertrude Stein, there was no God there, or very little. Clown Masses, Sister Debbie Guitar Masses, wholly human-centric was all the rage. I first tried to find a parish where Mass was still about worshipping God, and wasn’t succesful. I then attended less often, until I stopped altogether.
After getting my B.A., we moved to Louisville, Kentucky, the city of my birth, and I worked as a chef. Since we lived in a city with a great many churches (Louisville must have more Roman Catholic churches per capita than any other city in the United States), I searched (I wrote about it in detail here). Among many other churches, I attended the Greek Orthodox Church not far from where we lived, mostly out of curiosity. It was lovely, but I understood not a word, other than kyrie eleison, and to judge from the faces around me, most of the parish didn’t, either. I had no idea what was going on for the most part, and the second time I went, I made the mistake of going downstairs after Liturgy. After I got the “Are you Greek?” question and answered, “No,” I was shunned by everyone there from that moment, so I had no intention of going back (and did not).
I had heard that there was an Antiochian parish in the suburbs (Buechel), and that services were in English, but it was difficult to get there without a car, so I didn’t go for a month or so. I wanted to, however, if nothing else to find out what had been going on at the Greek church.
When I finally went, I knew I had found home. I wrote about it before, but I will reproduce it here.
David Bryan, who blogs at Oh Taste and See, wrote about his road from evangelicalism to Orthodoxy. There is a lot there, some of it very similar to my path, but some very different, unsurprising since he was an evangelical and I was a Roman Catholic. Of the differences, however, the most jarring was this:
I knew almost nothing about the Orthodox Church at the time, but I looked a local parish up on the Internet and, on the Feast of the Entrance of the Theotokos in the Temple of 1999 (Fall of my sophomore year), I attended my first Orthodox service in Tulsa, OK at a mostly-Lebanese parish.
I absolutely couldn’t stand it.
My own first experience was strikingly different, so much so that it’s nearly impossible to describe. It wasn’t discreet, but ongoing, and it had begun before I realized it.
I’m not sure when I realized there were tears pouring down my cheeks, except that it was during Matins. I was being touched by God, and the resistance I had, that resulting from the strangeness and trying to figure out what was going on, melted. I gave myself up, and as I released myself the objective observer and became the worshipper, God reached into the deepest part of me and tightened His grasp.
And He took hold of me ever stronger. When the priest came out from behind the iconostasis, bowed, and said, “Forgive me, my brothers and sisters,” I felt a shaking from deep within, utterly unlike anything I had experienced. And God continued to shake me violently, waking me up, throughout the Divine Liturgy.
Part of that experience was intellectual: We who mystically represent the Cherubim sing the thrice holy hymn to the life giving Trinity . . .
That’s when I “got it,” when my head began to follow my heart, then led my heart into even deeper transformation. I knew then, why we were there, and why we were not. I understood what worship truly meant.
We who mystically represent the Cherubim sing the thrice holy hymn to the life giving Trinity . . .
I had then such a deep understanding of worship that I didn’t need to inquire or wonder, because here was what I had been so shaken by at Mass, what had been so painfully absent after Vatican II, what I had been seeking for decades. And that understanding gave birth to what I can only describe as waves of awe and wonder at the power and majesty of God as I continued to hang onto ever word I heard. These things I had understood before, of course, but never had I felt such power, and never had I had to fight so hard not to drop to my knees and hide my face.
People speak of life-changing experiences so much that it’s a cliché. But this was truly a life-changing experience, and it was no cliché. It still happens, at every Matins, at every Vespers, at every Divine Liturgy, just as forcefully as the first time, and it leaves me shaken still.
And it truly was life changing. I had gone merely out of curiosity, but I had to learn more. I made an appointment with the Father Alexander. We met weekly, and I attended all services. I devoured every book he gave me. The more I learned, the more my head followed my heart. I had a great fear of apostasy, but even that was overcome, and on Holy Saturday in 1984, I was chrismated, and became an Orthodox Christian. I kept my saint’s name, but took as my new patron St Mark of Ephesus.
St Michael the Archangel was the antithesis of the Greek Orthodox church. Whereas the latter was coldly exclusive, the former was warm and welcoming. It is, by Orthodox standards, a very large parish, pan-ethnic, with probably a third converts. I was heart sick when the economy forced us to move back to Indiana so I could go to grad school. St Michael’s had become my extended family.
It took some time for me to see the parish as my church, as I did in the beginning, and my family, as I did when I left. I am painfully introverted around people I do not know (this always gets reactions of disbelief from those who know me, because around people I know, I am, to put it mildly, gregarious). I was befriended by the priest and his wife, and being in the choir gave me a small group of people I could get to know and become close to, and move out from there. But I missed St Michael’s painfully for a long time after we moved back to Indiana.
There was only a tiny ROCOR (Synod) mission in town, all coverts, and all of the excessively wacko variety (phony accents, 19th century Russian peasant garb, weekly lectures on how being Orthodox meant we had to support an absolute monarchy in the United States, and so forth). I went as long as I could. The final straw, so to speak, came during SS. Peter and Paul Lent, when the priest suddenly showed up at my house unannounced so he could snoop through my refrigerator and make sure there was nothing forbidden in it. I kicked him out of my house, and never went back. I had no car, so I was unable to drive to Indianapolis.
I went to Mass occasionally, mostly at the only conservative parish in town, but I didn’t belong there. What happened is complex, but this should suffice: My department exploded and my chair and the only other people on my committee who had any idea of what I was doing left. Even if I had wanted to complete my PhD (and I and several other of my fellow PhD students had been turned off to a life in academia by the nasty politics), I would not have been able to, unless I wanted to completely change the direction and focus of my research. I had taken and passed all of my quals save one, which was to be written and administered by one of the faculty who had left, so I was hanging in the air: ABD but not quite, and no way to take the exam, again, without putting together another committee, changing my research and no doubt, suddenly having to take yet more classes, and given my attitude toward academia at the time, I couldn’t be bothered. I took an adjunct faculty position (a good one, too) at the school of business, while my better half worked a menial job at the library with no hope of advancement.
Then we moved here to Pennsylvania.
I believe that God led me here. We live in the dead center of the state, much as Indianapolis is in the center of Indiana, on two overlapping edges of the Pennsylvania Slavic expanse that continues westward through Pennsylvania and into Eastern Ohio and eastward into New Jersey. There are 61 Orthodox parishes within a 60-mile radius of here, something that still astounds me, and probably nearly as many Byzantine parishes (in Indiana and Kentucky, Byzantines are purely an academic reality). Father Alexander, who chrismated me in 1984, is from Johnstown, 60 miles from here.
Before I go on, I should confess something. I should never stray. When I do, I forget, and stay away without purposefully intending to stay away (that is, I have no antipathy toward God or the church; I just don’t go). As you know if you are a long-time reader of my regular blog, shortly after moving here, my doctor put me on Interferon treatments for Hepatitis C, and they made me very ill (as, indeed, they do nearly everyone). I had been attending the local Orthodox parish when I started the treatments. When the effects became such that I was too ill to go, I should have foreseen that if I didn’t force myself to go back when I was better, I would stay away.
I did not. And as I should have known, I stayed away.
If you are or have ever been Roman Catholic, then you know that you don’t not go to church. It’s known as a Sunday Obligation for a reason. When the ache for God returned, I was too ashamed to go back to the Orthodox parish (yes, yes, insert sterotype about guilty Catholics here). What would Father say? What would those people think of me? How could I return? Worse, I had contacted Father Alexander, the priest who chrismated me, and had told him I was going to the parish here, and knew his daughter was now also attending the same parish. What would Father Alexander think, knowing as he no doubt did, that I lived five miles from an Orthodox parish and was not attending? And as time went on, the shame and guilt mounted.
I had to do something. I began going to Our Lady of Victory, the sane, conservative Catholic parish in town (St Josef Stalin, the Episcopal-wannabe parish, is directly across the street from our house). Another convert from Roman Catholicism on the Orthodox Christianity forum discussed the intensely maternal quality of the Catholic church, and it was that maternal quality that prevented me from realizing (or allowed me to repress) that I did not belong there, although I eventually did. Again, however, I was deeply ashamed and painfully guilty that I had not been attending, and did not immediately go back, as I should have.
As odd as it may seem, it was the Byzantines who led me back. I discovered that the local, non-campus mission met across the street at St Josef Stalin, and out of curiosity, I went. I spoke with the priest several times, and everything he said to me pointed me back to Orthodoxy (although he did make it clear that I would be welcome should I want to attend one of his parishes). His reaction to my guilt, that while not necessarily unwarranted, was keeping me from God, and his asking me why I was not going to the Orthodox parish, made me face what I knew I had to do. It took a couple of weeks before I could overcome the guilt and anxiety, but I finally emailed Father John, made an appointment, and went to speak with him.
“We don’t close doors.”
I cannot express the relief and gratitude I felt when he said that. I think, to judge from his tone of voice, that he said it as if it were obvious. It wasn’t to me. I will be eternally grateful for those four words. I only hope that Father John and the other parishioners find it in their hearts to forgive me for separating myself from them.
I am home, and I thank God for it.
Christ is among us!