SEEKING UNDERSTANDING …. AND MERCY
My Journey to Orthodoxy began in childhood. My parents, my brother and I were active members of one of the mainline protestant churches (Methodist) in our Mississippi town. Our church stood within sight of three differing (denominational) churches; indeed there were seven different denominations in a half-mile path – all worshiping the Lord Jesus Christ as the one true God.
Our church used the Apostles’ Creed in worship, which contains the statement, “I believe in one holy, catholic church”; and although the word “catholic” was explained to me as meaning everywhere, or universal, I was puzzled by the claim. I can recall frequently wondering, and even asking my parents, “….but why are there so many different kinds of churches?” The answer was, basically, that “there are just all kinds of people”, or, “people just believe differently”. Over the years I developed numerous preconceived notions, opinions and even prejudices about church and Christendom.
During my college years, I attended Campus Crusade for Christ meetings and experienced a rebirth – a new understanding of Christ and the Cross. Being away from my home church, I visited and attended different churches, but could not seem to settle into one place to call home. In his book, Becoming Orthodox, Father Peter E. Gillquist, of blessed memory, references this scenario as being a common problem among the unsettled youth of the 60’s, many of whom fell away from church completely after conversion.
In 1969, I married my high school sweetheart, who also spent his formative years in the same church as I. Over the 42 years of our marriage, we had five geographic relocations over five states. In that time we were members of seven distinctly different Protestant denominations. For most of those years I studied the Bible passionately, yearning to make everything “fit”. Yet, in none of those Bible-believing denominations did I come to a place of rest. I simply had too many questions – questions springing basically from the issue of variance of opinion or “doctrinal disputes” in Christendom.
Fast forward a few years: with our four sons grown and parents themselves, and my parents and my husband’s parents deceased, I began to experience a deep sense of loss. Combined with other factors, I became increasingly disengaged from our church home, and I found myself frequently and specifically praying for mercy. One Sunday morning in the early fall of 2011, standing alone in my kitchen trying to decide about attending church that day, I committed myself in prayer to making a change in my life (and specifically, a change in my relationship to church) – yet having no idea as to how to go about it.
For the weeks that followed, not much changed; I just continued to plead for mercy.
On a cool day in mid-November I walked into our city’s public library and began to search in the non-fiction section for a particular book. Not finding the book where it was cataloged, I continued to browse.When my eyes fell upon a book entitled Bread & Water, Wine & Oil. I picked it up for no particular reason. Fr. Meletios Webber was the author, and the subtitle was “an Orthodox Christian Experience of God”. There was an inscription inside the cover indicating that Father Paul Yerger, the pastor-priest of Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church, Clinton, MS, had placed it in the library in 2008. Recalling a recent quote I had seen on the sign in front of the Orthodox Church that was quite jolting, I checked the book out and took it home. And with that, my conscious Journey to Orthodoxy began.
As I read and digested page after page, I knew that my finding the book about Orthodoxy at the library was no accident, and I began to consider visiting Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church. This would be, I knew, a very significant decision, for although I had become disengaged from my current church home, I most definitely was not interested in changing churches, and in fact, had a strong aversion to doing so. After discussing my interest with my husband and finding he did not object to my visiting the Church, I did so. And in so doing, my lifelong questions regarding Christendom began to slowly dissolve; I began to view “church” from a new perspective. Although my initial exposure to Orthodox worship felt strange, the familiarity of the Scriptures, the sense of holiness and the frequent prayer – “Lord, have mercy” – all enveloped me in a comforting welcome. In the moments that I felt like fleeing, I would remind myself that I had been led to this Church; consequently, over time, I could not deny it: I had found home.
The earliest instruction that I received from the Orthodox Church was the importance of developing a “rule of prayer”. Although I had previously believed that written prayers were not as sincere as formulating words from one’s own heart, I have come to love the written, ancient prayers of the Church, which the Church prays together, reserving personal prayers for the privacy of the prayer closet.
Throughout this initial year of observing the ancient expression of the Christian faith, so much has been foreign to me; yet in spite of that, it has undeniably brought to me both rest and incentive, comfort and conviction. I have sensed discipline (a gentle and loving authority) and freedom in a perfect blend. And, although it is clear that doctrinal teaching is of utmost importance to the Church, the focus in the services is on worship. I have noticed a refreshing absence of human recognition, elevation, or “following.” I love the emphasis on The Trinity (“one in essence and undivided”) and the reference to Christ as “God, the Word”. I love how Orthodoxy connects the Old and New Testaments, having much the same pattern of worship as revealed in the Old, with the focus of worship being, of course, the Incarnate Son of God as revealed in the New. And, I think most remarkable of all of my observations is the historical connection – the respectful honoring of the host of Saints gone before us, many in martyrdom, and the way the Church worship services reflect the “communion of the saints”. And then of course, Orthodox worship brings an engaging of the senses, and an awareness of the mystery that God is.
As Fr. Webber stated on page one of my aforementioned book:
“In everyday English, the word “mystery” implies a puzzle to be solved, a conundrum to be unraveled. The idea is that if you think about a problem long enough, you will find a solution. In the East, on the other hand, a mystery is an area where the human mind cannot go, where the heart alone makes sense – not by knowing, but by being. The Greek word “mysterion” leads you into a sense of “not-knowing’ or “not-understanding” and leaves you there. Having arrived, all you can do is gaze and wonder; there is nothing to solve.”
…… To gaze and wonder, with nothing to solve..…. What a great and rich mercy!
Paula S. Sartor