The story of my journey to Orthodoxy is not one involving a major conversion. Instead, since I was born into the faith, my journey has been discovering how important the Orthodox Faith is in my life.
My mom took me on my first pilgrimage when I was three-years-old, to a women’s convent in California. Although I don’t remember this pilgrimage, it was the first among many pilgrimages that I would take with my mom and family. The first pilgrimage I remember was a trip to a women’s monastery in Boston, where I literally met a giant. She was the tallest women in the world, and although she was from Greece, she had come to America for medical treatment of a brain tumor that caused her abnormal growth. She only spoke a few words of English and I didn’t speak a word of Greek. Our only connection was that we shared the same Faith, and I remember understanding everything she said in our long conversations.
At the age of nine, I traveled with my Mom to Greece to visit monasteries and our cousins whom we had never met. While in Greece, we traveled to many monasteries and we were fortunate to be able to stay a week at one of them. There, we went to all of the evening and night services. I have a memory of feeling so tired at one of the night services, but soothingly engulfed with the heat of the candles and the nuns chanting in Greek; it was so welcoming and felt so comfortable — I knew that this was a piece of heaven. On this trip we also went to the island of Tinos and saw the miracle working icon of the Mother of God there. It was truly amazing seeing the whole church strung with chains of medallions that people had given in gratitude to show what ailment they had been cured.
In third grade I was diagnosed with discoid meniscus, a rare knee problem that caused me considerable pain. I was in a leg cast for quite some time, but when it, and all other treatments failed, it was determined that surgery was my last and final option. The doctors said that even with surgery, I probably would be walking with a cane by the time I was twenty years old.
With my surgery date scheduled, it was time to go on pilgrimage to pray. This time, it was to someplace familiar to my whole family — the tomb of Blessed John Maximovich in San Francisco. At this time St. John was not yet canonized a saint. My younger brother had been healed by blessed John, and my family made annual trips to his tomb. My mother’s spiritual father, Fr. Anasatasy, was a priest monk in the Old Cathedral where Blessed John had served (his tomb was under the New Cathedral). At the Old Cathedral Fr. Anastasy still kept one of the vestments of Blessed John, the one that is now depicted in St John’s icon. He took the vestments and put them over my head and wrapped them around me. As he said intercessory prayers to Blessed John, I remember standing there, my leg swollen and wrapped in ice, the vestments over me, and again feeling that I was engulfed as I had been at that night-time service in Greece. I knew again that this was something welcoming and comfortable.
We returned to Portland and went for my pre-operative appointment for my knee. There, we expected the doctor to give us more details about my surgery. In preparation for the surgery, films were taken of my knee as they had done many times before. But when the doctor came in to talk to us, he was holding my old films and comparing them to the new set he had just taken. He asked my mom where she had taken me for surgery. Surprised, my mom said she hadn’t taken me for surgery anywhere, but that we had traveled to San Francisco to have prayers said for me. He stood there in shock. He couldn’t believe it. The new films showed my knee was normal! It was a miracle! I didn’t need surgery, I had been completely healed.
Perhaps it was the many pilgrimages that I had taken with my mom; perhaps it was the healing of my knee, or just God’s grace–but I never have questioned my faith as to whether or not it was the true faith. I knew it was. I always turned to the church when I needed help spiritually, and it was at age 15 when I turned to the church in great need. I had put myself in a situation that I never imagined I would be in. I had made a huge mistake. It was a situation that resulted in my going to confession and seeking the counsel of our parish priest, Fr. Photios. He was there to help me, and later he was the first person I turned to when the result of my error was revealed. I was pregnant. Through Fr. Photios and the love of the Church, God’s love was made real to me as I realized I would need my faith to get me through my pregnancy and the trials and tribulations of being a teenage mother.
My mom and dad were loving and supportive, and although disappointed in the situation, they treated me with loving kindness. Fortunately, my pregnancy didn’t end the pilgrimages, and during my seventh month of pregnancy, my family traveled down to San Francisco for the canonization of blessed John Maximovich. It was something most people don’t get to experience in their lifetime, and it was so amazing to participate in such a holy occasion. I believe that Elaine, who was inside me, and I were truly blessed to be there.
As my pregnancy continued, the biological father of Elaine decided to make an exit. Devastated, I questioned God as to how I would manage. How would I ever turn my life into a normal one? How was I going to do this alone? Even though I had a very supportive family I still felt isolated and alone. God answered my prayers, and when Elaine was eight months old, I met Matthew. I wasn’t even looking for someone, but within four months Matt told me he wanted to spend the rest of his life with Elaine and myself. Two years later, we were married. Away in Eugene at college, Matt and I began our married life with Elaine. I never could have imagined my life finally coming together, and I was so very happy.
What I didn’t realize at this point in my life was how much I took my faith for granted. I was always a Sunday participant; I made it to as many of the feast day services that I could with my college schedule, but, that was it. Although I had grown up fasting, and I had been raised praying the Akathist every morning before school, I had now let my spiritual life slack off. I didn’t fast, and a daily prayer rule was no more than a few “Jesus prayers” when – and if – I thought about it. Even though God had blessed me so much, it wasn’t until Elaine was two-and-a-half and started asking questions about God and our faith that I realized the true importance of what it means to be Orthodox. I had to “live” my faith and not just “pretend” my faith. I had to be the example for Elaine as well as for my new husband. I realized then that I needed to work on myself and my spiritual growth in order for me to plant the seed of faith in my own family. Through God’s grace Matt was brought into the faith, and together, we began growing our family in the Church.
As I continue to struggle to strengthen my faith, and to lead our six children on their journey in the Orthodox Church, I realize that I am still on my journey to orthodoxy. Fortunately for me I am so blessed to share this journey with our community at St. John’s.