You hear a lot in Orthodoxy about how inquirers have to “come and see”—to experience the Liturgy and the spiritual life first—because it can’t be adequately described or written about. You hear that Orthodoxy is experiential; it’s not a list of doctrinal statements to which you intellectually assent from your armchair in your evening gown. I don’t disagree about the nature of Orthodoxy, but I do have to honestly say that “come and see” isn’t how it happened for me.
The first time I attended a Divine Liturgy, I hated it. I was a generically “non-denominational” Protestant and, as a freshman on a very traditional Catholic liberal arts campus, rather out of my depth. I had no car, so I (and the other two or so Protestants I knew) went to church on Sunday with whichever upperclassman we could find who was going off campus. One week, there were no other Protestants. So, we made the last-minute decision to tag along with the only other people going off campus for worship: the equally tiny group of Orthodox students. The church was a small Russian immigrant community. I think, looking back, they actually were attempting to do the Liturgy in English, but it was hard to tell. Communion somehow took forever despite the fact that there were only maybe 20 people there. I couldn’t leave fast enough after standing there for three hours with absolutely no idea what was going on.
I never seriously considered Orthodoxy while I was at school. That isn’t to say that I wasn’t doing a whole lot of considering! Actually, I majored in “considering” twice over: I insisted on what, for that school and those programs, was an unusual (or “brutal,” as the department chair described it) double major in philosophy and theology. I was so adamant on taking both because, as I told the department chair then, “I can’t see how I could possibly be expected to study one without the other to any satisfactory degree”—not when they were both taught from a traditional Catholic perspective anyway. So I spent a few years studying as much of the great depth of Catholic tradition as I could cram into four years.
I don’t remember waking up any one day and realizing that I wasn’t meaningfully Protestant anymore, but it happened. My Protestant theology was blown away by the force of that fire hose. To this day, I have a much softer spot for the scholastic theologians of Rome than most Orthodox I meet. I credit Thomas Aquinas with showing me the depth and beauty of Christianity in ways I could never have considered before. But, perhaps in part because the Catholicism I was experiencing was such an exemplar of that tradition, I never really had space to think about Orthodoxy. On the vanishingly rare occasion that Orthodoxy entered my field of view, it was only as a group of stubborn ethnic people whose beliefs are not meaningfully distinct from Catholics anyway. (The only time I can remember substantively dealing with Orthodoxy was comparing what was, to me, “some random Russian guy” and Thomas Aquinas on the Trinity. I ended up siding mostly with the Russian guy in my paper, with much trepidation. (It turns out, looking back, it was renowned theologian Vladimir Lossky!)
So, I sat there “independently verifying” Catholic doctrines one by one: Liturgy, sacraments, Tradition, Apostolic succession, justification and sanctification, even Mary, mostly. I was taking the Catholic position most of the time. But I was still technically if reluctantly Protestant, because I could never force myself to accept the infallibility of the Roman Magisterium as they defined it. Has Rome in fact never erred in teaching faith and morals? Is what they believe the same as what the Fathers believed? In what way is doctrinal development acceptable? I couldn’t justify the answer to myself, no matter how hard I bashed my head against it. So I graduated, with top honors—the only Protestant theology major anyone I asked could remember—and I built up an increasingly critical mass of cognitive dissonance.
I don’t remember exactly what changed. I had come home and I finally asked my mother—in the course of a frustrated conversation about how no, we couldn’t just convert to Catholicism and privately redefine Magisterial infallibility to be acceptable—if she had any books on Orthodoxy. It was a last-ditch effort. I was desperate. She did; it was one of those contrasting perspectives series of essays on theological topics from Orthodox and evangelical thinkers. So I read that one. Then I ordered more—and more and more, and I searched online for transcripts and journals. I must have gone through more text that year than I ever had in one period of time before. I remember the feeling: incredible hope, followed by desperation and frustration. What about this? Can I accept that? So I read more, trying to find out. Until (and this one I do specifically remember) I finally finished a book, and I wasn’t immediately bombarded with questions and frustrations. The book wasn’t all that special, but the moment was. I knew I had to convert.
It was a huge relief. All the things that I couldn’t reconcile in Catholicism or Protestantism were exactly where Orthodoxy had a unique perspective. The suffocating weight of all that dissonance evaporated. It was like I had been painstakingly constructing a puzzle in the dark, and someone turned on the light. I found that Orthodox doctrine shed light on issues I didn’t even know I had. It was true. So I told my mom. I finally Googled Orthodox churches in the area, and together, we cold-called St. John. In June 2018, my mom, dad, and I were baptized into the Orthodox Church.