My journey to Orthodoxy began as a very small child, at the unknowing conditioning of my mother. You see, my parents raised me in the Episcopal Church because, 1) my Presbyterian-raised father wanted “Catholic values without the guilt” and 2) my Roman Catholic-raised mother wanted to marry a man who was going to be an Episcopal priest. Dad never did become a priest. In fact, he wasn’t really involved in my religious or spiritual upbringing. My mom was the head of the household when it came to religion.
So, I learned the Episcopal teachings through my mother’s Roman Catholic lens. If she did use guilt, either I don’t remember or it didn’t work on me. She taught me to love and cherish God, the Angels and the Saints in my every day life. She taught me that our Saints’ names and lives were to be taken seriously. A Guardian Angel was assigned to each of us, and I learned to pray intercessory prayers as part of my bedtime prayers. She taught me about special days in the church, though she didn’t call them “feast days.” Holy Week with her was like watching an old woman sit on the porch remembering “how it used to be,” as the Episcopal church didn’t practice a full set of Holy Week services or display the regard mom learned for Jesus, His Mother, and the Passion. We expressed that regard at home. I must admit that, sadly, because the rest of the people in the church, including the clergy, were not talking and behaving the way my mother taught, I didn’t believe this church community actually believed the things she told me. I was sure, however, that she was speaking the Truth.
I questioned and struggled like many do, and my struggles and disagreements with what is good and right caused me to leave the church searching for the church of my dreams. It took me almost 17 years to find that church. This is the story of the day I found it.
March 21, 1998, I woke up, beautified myself, and drove from Olympia to Bellingham to sing at my graduation and receive my Bachelors of Music from Western Washington University. Afterward, my parents, family and very good friends joined me for a special luncheon in my honor at my favorite brewpub. I was elated that I’d finally graduated (I was a non-traditional student) and was already working/teaching!
After the party, I drove to Seattle to meet a certain someone for our second “date” at Seattle’s Greek Orthodox Church of the Assumption. Date? At a church? Yes. Well…I wasn’t sure this was a church. From what I knew, the Greek Orthodox “Church” was like a YMCA for Greeks. For me, this was just a concert venue to hear some choir called “Cappella Romana” sing sacred music of 17th- and 18th-Century Russia, much of it not heard in the United States. Since I had just earned my degree in Choral Conducting, Vocal Pedagogy, and Music Education, I was, of course speeding to my destination. To top it all off, my “date” told me to come early, as he would have time to talk with me before the concert started.
I arrived and he let me in to this white-walled building with golden gates that were locked. He led me into the pews where he promptly said, “I have to go rehearse now. See you after the concert.” I sat there smiling and thinking, oh…we’re not going to get to talk before the concert and I’m the only one sitting in this place with all these gold mosaics. Wow! This place is really gaudy! What is this place? Maybe I would find out by reading the books in the pews. I began with the children’s book Our Church Our World. Surely I could understand that. There were pictures and short sentences. There was a photo of a mosaic icon of Jesus explaining, “This is Jesus.” I heard myself think, Is this a Christian Church? Do they really have kids in church?
You see, when I was 14, I began a 3-year job as the babysitter for the children during services. Yes, I was paid by the Episcopal church to keep children out of church. I may have been forced by my sweet mother to attend church, but it was not a place I was going to raise my children.
Back to the Cappella concert night, I turned the page and saw a photo of an icon of someone called “Panagia.” Gee, I thought, I thought Mary was the mother of God. At that moment, my “date” came up behind me, pointed to the icon of this Panagia and asked, “Do you know who that is?” it was my first lesson in Orthodoxy. He apologized for not being able to talk more, but he had to continue to rehearse. I was okay with that, because his telling me about the Panagia prompted me to continue reading.
By now, it was clear to me that this was indeed a Christian Church. I started to get excited. I thought I had shopped every brand of Christianity possible (as well as other religions), but I missed one. I leaned forward to look in this burgundy book called The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom. Do they say the Lord’s Prayer? Check. Do they say the Creed, one Creed, not the flavor-of-the-week Creed with other names for the Holy Trinity? Check, phew! And look! It reads the way I’ve always thought it should read! Holy Moly! Look! Here is a “History and Outline” of the Divine Liturgy. These people are serious! They even state, “It is clear that the church is characterized forever by its Semitic origins. It is equally clear that the Church has close connections with Hellenism.” Holy Lord! Did I just read that? Everywhere else I’d been denied this, maybe because they were afraid of anti-Semitic accusations. The Hellenic part was relegated to folklore with Zeus! I read on and on and could hardly sit still.
Suddenly, it was as though God revealed to me that the “gaudy mosaics” were icons of the Saints and Angels. I had this overwhelming sense of being in the Right place. Oh Man! Oh Man! Did I find it? After 17 years of fervent searching and being without a church, have I found the church? My excitement rose. How was I going to make it through this concert?
Inside I am jumping up and down! I have a litany of questions to ask. I have to WAIT for the concert to end before I can ask my date about “his church” which might not be a YMCA for Greeks after all! While I was waiting for the concert to start, I couldn’t even read the concert program notes of this very important music being revealed! I was far too excited!!!
So begins the concert: the concert I was sooo interested in and excited to hear with my newly degree’d ears. Guess what? I didn’t hear it! I tried to listen, but I couldn’t hear it! I couldn’t concentrate. I concentrated on the conductor to make sense of the music (a technique I generally employ). This special music. I heard nothing. I tried to focus on the voice of my date. Nothing. I could barely see the choir, let alone hear it! I saw this church glowing before me, offering Herself to me.
Finally, the concert was over and I could ask my questions! Well, actually, I had to wait for everyone in the audience to tell the choir members and conductor how fabulous the concert was. I approached the conductor and said, “Congratulations on the concert” that I couldn’t hear! We exchanged pleasantries. I had no idea how special he was to my date. Didn’t matter. I wanted to go to dinner and ask my questions.
When we finally did, I don’t even know that I ate what I ordered. I launched right into my questions about the Church. Do they believe in the Holy Trinity as one God? Do they believe the Saints and Angels play a regular part in our every day lives? Do they take seriously all the sacraments, not just the ones that require pretty clothes? At one point, I think he dropped his fork in disbelief that I was asking these questions. I can only imagine what was going through his mind about me.
We spent the rest of the night talking about Orthodoxy. A couple weeks later, he took me to my first Vespers service at a Russian church. That sealed it. I knew I was home. How could I sign up?
A year later at that same church, I became Orthodox. A year after that, I married my date in that now beautiful church, and the conductor of that concert was our koumbaro (sponsor). And now, at every service, I experience the real beauty and fullness my mom so lovingly taught me about when I was a child.