Posts Tagged ‘Religious Conversion’

My Seventeen Year Journey with Saint Herman of Alaska

December 12, 2009

 

The last week and a half  has been particularly difficult – illness, financial strain, job problems, holiday overload – and there have been days when I just didn’t give a crap about anything.   It’s not too hard to understand why the sin of anger is a big part of my confessions.  But it was this evening when the fog of sickness had started to lift that I realized I had something to be happy and joyful about. 

December 13th is the feastday of possibly the most beloved of American Orthodox Saints – Venerable Herman of Alaska.  A monk whose simple life has had the most profound impact on American Orthodoxy.  I count myself blessed that seventeen years ago on his feastday I was  received into the Holy Orthodox Church through chrismation.  It was and remains still, the most important day of my life.  I was reborn into a new life in the Orthodox faith and Saint Herman has been one of those saints I have felt closest to. 

Some people might say that one day of  total spiritual devotion and happiness would be enough to satisfy them a lifetime.  That’s how many Orthodox converts remember the date of their baptism or chrismation.  It is that one special day that seems to be a fulfillment of long, difficult journeys and sacrifices to achieve truth and salvation.  In His mercy, God has blessed me with 6205 days since my chrismation, but I never fail to remember how miserably I have squandered all that time.  I have so often let the problems and stress of this world interfere with my spiritual life and left so many areas of sin untouched and unchanged.  I can only hope that through the prayers of Saint Herman I can complete my life in the same spirit of peace that he had.  

If you would like to learn more about the life and miracles of Saint Herman click here.

O blessed Father Herman of Alaska,
North star of Christ’s holy Church,
The light of your holy life and great deeds
Guides those who follow the Orthodox way.
Together we lift high the Holy Cross
You planted firmly in America.
Let all behold and glorify Jesus Christ,
Singing his holy Resurrection.
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God’s Beautiful Family Plan

December 3, 2008

I attended the funeral of a dear friend’s mother this week.  I had never met her, but felt I knew what kind of amazing mother she was through my friend’s stories and reminisces.   Her life was defined by her strong and active Roman Catholic faith, a loving marriage and her large, close-knit family.  These were the things that united her family around her in life and in death – boundless love and a shared and practiced faith.   To see her family actively participate in the funeral mass and carry on her life of faith was the most beautiful and affirming thing I’ve witnessed in a long time.  Please remember the servant of God Katherine in your prayers.

The value of a common faith cannot be too strongly emphasized.   In 2 Corinthians 6:14-15,  St. Paul talks about the danger of entering into a marriage with non-believers.

14 Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?  And what communion has light with darkness? 15 And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever?

Speaking as one convert to other Orthodox converts, or to anyone who finds themselves in a faith that is radically different from one’s family, this lesson in familial unity is bittersweet.  As converts we often live in a spiritual vacuum as isolated practitioners of a religion that is foreign or downright blasphemous to the people we truly wish to be accepted and affirmed by.  I have heard of Orthodox converts who, like the saints, have been rejected by their families, or even been threatened with physical harm for following Christ into the Orthodox faith.  They live their lives in dread of family gatherings, conflicts over the holidays, or the proselytizing by well-meaning friends who want to bring them back into truth.  Their chrismation or baptism day is celebrated alone and without the joy of spouse or family participation, and their children are placed in a spiritual tug-of-war.   Others have made compromises by becoming Orthodox in their hearts, but wishing to be peacemakers and a Christian example, wait years for resistance to diminish before formally converting.

In my life, seventeen years as a convert have worn me down almost to despair by the, at best, scoffing and criticism of my own spouse, at worst,  his scorn, ridicule and outright hostility towards my faith and the faith of my children.  God forgive my sin for looking with envy at families who are strong in their faith, or whose spouses support their decision with tolerance and good-will.  But who knows what is best for me but God.  Maybe if my faith life was all sweetness and light I wouldn’t be so committed and unwavering.  That’s the curious power of persecution.

Many converts, and I blame myself too, can be so zealous in their initial dive into their new faith that it can feel like being caught in a whirlwind to a resistant or spiritually disinterested spouse.  They might think it’s only a fad, or if you persist, that there must be something cultish about the church that has sucked you in.  Their erroneous beliefs get reinforced by Orthodox practices like fasting, prayers to the saints, kissing icons or a priest’s hand.  Maybe as a new convert we go a little overboard, but it’s done for the best of reasons – love of God’s Holy Church.  Only time gives a sense of perspective and moderation that will guide you for a lifetime of devotion and service to the Church.  However, by that time, your family or spouse have very often written you off as a hopeless nut job.

If you’re expecting me to give you some big, “happily-ever-after” ending or my uplifting testimonial and advice, you’ll have to read another convert’s blog.  Don’t leave without hope though.  I’ve come to realize that my spiritual happiness isn’t dependent on the approval or acceptance of anyone else but Christ.  Christ is in me and no matter what comes from the outside, that can’t be driven out.  This was the undoing of the Communist governments or anyone who finds themselves in an oppressive home situation, because the oppressor cannot truly get inside someone’s heart and mind.  The idea that every man is an island is so true  and my island has an Orthodox Church on it.  That is where my heart and soul are.  

I don’t know if my poor example of faith will do much, but St. Paul had a very clear idea of what it meant to live an unequally yoked life and what promise it held.   God must have a plan for me in this intolerable situation and I just have to trust him.

1 Corinthians 7:13-16      13 And a woman who has a husband who does not believe, if he is willing to live with her, let her not divorce him. 14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband; otherwise your children would be unclean, but now they are holy. 15 But if the unbeliever departs, let him depart; a brother or a sister is not under bondage in such cases. But God has called us to peace. 16 For how do you know, O wife, whether you will save your husband? Or how do you know, O husband, whether you will save your wife?

Thanks Martin Luther

October 30, 2008

Today is Reformation Day in the Lutheran churches and I would just like to take this opportunity to thank Martin Luther for making me Orthodox.  I grew up in the 60’s when the Lutheran Church was conservative and traditional.  We still had felt Jesus banners in the church, but you didn’t find women or sexually confused or theologically heretical clergyman, or for that matter, sexually confused, theologically heretical women.  You knew just where German pastors were coming from.  And they were the ones who shaped my beliefs and future life as an Orthodox Christian.  I am what the Lutheran Church first made me:

  1. I’m Catholic but not Roman.  Luther is famously portrayed as a man who did not want to destroy the Roman Catholic Church but to reform it.  He seems to have started out that way, though later on as things started to snowball,  he sure ‘nuf took to the idea pretty darn well.  Be that as it may, this idea struck very close with me.  Why wasn’t I Roman Catholic if Luther only wanted to straighten things up?  If the Roman Catholic Church was worth saving, why wasn’t it good enough for me now?  So I began to explore the Catholic Church, but quickly found that Martin Luther had already primed the anti-papacy pump.  I can buy first among equals, but not The Big Cheese.
  2. I’m sacramental.  Luther tossed most of the sacraments, figuring only two (or maybe three if you count reconciliation) – Baptism and the Lord’s Supper – were sufficiently biblical to remain.  The practice of those two, particularly Communion, was all I needed to see that something special was going on between God and me.  Communion rightly had a prominent place and at my first Communion class I was taught the Lutheran layer cake view of the Eucharist – bread and under that, Body; wine and ditto, Blood.  I was sufficiently impressed that the Body and Blood were sacred or at least sacred enough until the wine was unceremoniously dumped down a holy disposal sink.   Down the drain with our Lord’s Blood, but it wasn’t always Jesus’ Blood, only at the time of communion… Very confusing.  Jesus was just kind of sitting under the elements – take ’em out of context and Jesus wasn’t there anymore.  
  3. I’m liturgical.  Worship has an order and a flow to it and that’s just the way it is.  As a German I can perfectly understand the need for doing things just so.   Luther thought so too.
  4. I’m traditional.  Given that my religious education started only at the year 1517, I still acquired an  “older is better”  mindset.  At the time of my catechism, I guess I just never thought too much about the 1500 years before that.  It was all Roman Catholic to me.  First there was Jesus, then the Roman Catholics, then Luther.  It was only later I realized Luther hadn’t been too straight with me about the timeline. 
  5. I’m symbolic.  Thanks Luther for the Holy Pine Tree and it’s sacred symbols.  I can remember a big, whopping Christmas tree in the sanctuary of Christ the King Lutheran Church covered in white lights and shiny, white, glittery Christian symbols.  Doves, Chi Ro’s, fish, Alpha and Omegas, Lambs with a Cross.  It’s only one small step from accepting churchy symbols to accepting the greatest visual symbols the Church has ever produced – Holy Icons.  Now I won’t say I didn’t have some initial trouble kissing them, but it’s just like kissing that first boy when you’re thirteen; do it enough and you warm up to the idea.

So Happy Reformation Day today and this coming Reformation Sunday.  Sing a good rousing chorus of “A Mighty Fortress is our God” for me.   I have much to appreciate where I came from and the foundation it planted in me.  Thanks Martin Luther for putting me on the path to Orthodoxy.  I wouldn’t be here without you.