From as far back as I can remember, I always had a feeling of nostalgia for something of which I could never clearly describe but which seemed to faintly call to me. Growing up in suburban Chicago, I didn’t have the blessing of enjoying such wonders of God’s creation as enjoyed in the Northwest, but my house was close to some undeveloped railroad land and my father and I would often walk around in it, picking up trash. I came to love that piece of wetland and prairie and as I grew older and I would spend a lot of time by myself out there enjoying the silence and beauty, despite being ignorant of the Craftsman of such beauty. I believe it was that piece of mind I experienced on the land that kept me at least tenuously connected to God in my adolescence, as I did about all I could to frustrate my Lutheran parents and Sunday school teachers. My family members, while being honorable, loving, and virtuous, were not particularly involved in church life outside of Sunday services, but my mother – God bless her, the longest suffering woman I have ever known – dragged, encouraged, and cajoled me to continue attending church up until the time of my confirmation. I look back on her tenacity and prayers as essential for drawing me back eventually to Christ. In the meantime, I had basically abandoned any serious Christian faith even before my confirmation. In my myopic vision, I saw Christians as only stuffy, close-minded, puritanical, and hypocritical people performing rituals that were boring or falsely enthusiastic, devoid of awe and otherworldliness.
So, at the age of 14, I asked for my inheritance from my Heavenly Father and took off for the far off-country, abandoning my spiritual heritage to unite myself with all manners of heresies and false doctrines. In my absence from Christ, Neo-Paganism and Wicca presented themselves to fill the vacuum of my spiritual life. Although I came to see the serious faults of these belief systems, they offered to me some elements that I had not yet encountered in my religious formation: a spiritual connection, or at least a presumption, to my ethnic heritage; a love for nature and the reminder of our deep connection to it; and the concentrated use of meditation and ritual, i.e. liturgy. Little did I know these liturgies were demonic and I foolishly equated any things I witnessed that appeared to be “extra-ordinary” as spiritually beneficial. Thank God I didn’t become enamored with these experiences, but using the only light of salvation I had left to me – my mind, reason – I came to perceive the inconsistencies of this belief system and slowly became disenchanted with it. Moreover, I perceived the people involved with this movement were neither happy nor enlightened, many of them coming from or participating in the breaking apart of homes and the progressive disintegration of normalcy in their lives.
After this time and while I was still in high school and into college, I turned my attention to my studies and to philosophy. During this time, my spiritual life grew increasingly scant, though I don’t believe I completely abandoned my belief in God. I reduced God to either a principle of creation or to an entity so completely foreign to humans that His presence at best is irrelevant and at worst criminally negligent in His absence from our lives. This latter statement really characterizes the kind of prideful humanism I advocated: that even if God exists, He doesn’t care about us and so we must by our own efforts create the world in which we wish to dwell. And so I saw human freedom as a kind of mocking curse, as Heidegger says, “We are condemned to be free.” A man’s actions appeared increasingly irrelevant, in any ultimate sense, in a world where the arbitrary and capricious holds sway. This attitude was reflected in my actions at the time, as I let my passions control my choices, restricting those passions when they threatened my security or physical well-being; spiritually, I was not well.
As my study of philosophy continued, I encountered Buddhism, initially through the works of Shunryu Suzuki and D.T. Suzuki. In the first figure, I found a clear message of human suffering, how it arises, and how it can be overcome by proper meditation and way of life. Together, these men got me interested in spirituality again and Buddhism avoided the pitfalls of theism I encountered up to that point. I would summarize the teachings and relevance of Buddhism like this: suffering exists; attachment to things and passions breeds suffering; suffering can be overcome by following the Eightfold Path; Buddha is not a savior, He only points the way; and even if God exists, because He is a being, he participates in the world of Maya (illusion), as all being undergoes change and therefore is illusory to human consciousness. In this system, I found a rational basis for ascetic effort and an ethic that is empathetic to human suffering. So at about 20, I began practicing zazen and vipassana meditation, occasionally visiting the Theravada monastery in Willowbrook, Illinois to interact and meditate with Thai monks. Although I now see that I was following a false and incomplete doctrine, I look back at this time as the beginning of my journey back towards Christ, as the Buddhist tradition helped me to distance myself from some of the passions to which I had attached myself. Regarding those passions I still held on to, I at least felt convicted by my conscience and retained a desire to change.
Despite the positive change Buddhism affected in my life, I remained skeptical about the claim that personhood was an illusion that suffering was not real, but only a manifestation of unfulfilled desire. How could we love one another if there are no persons to love? Is there no meaning to suffering, no redemptive value of it, or is it just a manifestation of Maya? Both of these questions were spurred by a series of failed relationships and my inability to conquer a particular passion that held me. Moreover, two potentially fatal car crashes from which I walked away sharply turned my mind towards an awareness of death. I knew at that point, if I was intellectually honest with myself, I was still committed to, and wanted to believe in the existence of, a personal God. I desired nothing more than to be delivered from these events and this passion by someone powerful enough to do so. Providentially, while I was finishing my senior seminar on Buddhist philosophy, another religion professor I had at Hillsdale, Dr. John Reist, invited me into his office to talk as he knew something was troubling me. And there it happened, he asked me point-blank, “Mr. Walsh? Do you know Jesus loves you?” and at that moment, the pretensions fell away. I had to acknowledge the inescapable love of God in Christ that, as C.S. Lewis says, is like the hound of heaven that chases us down relentlessly.
About this same time my college house-mate and best friend, Mike Thrift (a fellow parishioner of St. John, currently living in Romania) was in the process of converting to Orthodoxy. We shared many conversations on our porch about Christianity, and through these conversations with Mike and with other college friends who already were Orthodox or in the process of converting, I discovered the Light from the East. What especially and initially interested me about the Orthodox were two things: they retained a tradition of meditative prayer via the Jesus Prayer, and they were the first group of Christians I met that were both serious and authentic in their own spiritual life but who also didn’t judge me. I had met Christians who fulfilled one of the two aspects, but not both.
After college, I moved to Southern Illinois for grad school and I can honestly say those first two semesters were the roughest time of my life. I was beyond broke, the workload was crushing, I experienced another failed relationship, and I still struggled with a particular passion of which I could not let go. I tried attending the local Lutheran churches in town, but I still felt empty. On a last ditch effort, I tried looking up Orthodox churches online and I found the Holy Protection of the Virgin Mary in Royalton – it was the only Orthodox church between St. Louis and Memphis! I began attending Divine Liturgy irregularly and slowly I began to recognize the beauty of God and, more importantly, grew in wise fear of Him. One night, after a particularly long struggle, I finally broke down in tears and beseeched the Mother of God for her help, too ashamed to talk to my Father in Heaven, but too bold to give up hope. At that moment, I felt a great calm and comfort come upon me and I slept extraordinarily well that night. At a crossroads in my life, I decided that either Orthodoxy is the authentic tradition of Christ and His Church or nothing is true and Christianity is just another religious tradition. I couldn’t abide the second option, not after the Mother God saved my life and hope, so that Spring I decided I would become Orthodox.
I called Mike to let him know the good news. He was really happy and then he suggested I go and visit some monasteries that summer. So off I went, visiting three monasteries in Illinois: St. John Chrysostom Monastery in Kenosha, Holy Ascension Monastery in Harvard and St. Issac of Syria Skete in Boscobel. This trip proved to be truly miraculous and a number of events occurred that confirmed my decision. I can’t speak of them here, as it would take far too long for the length of this article to describe but ask me if you’re interested. When I returned to school in the fall, I became a catechumen and on St. Mary of Egypt Sunday in 2008, I was received into the Orthodox Church, not worthy of this blessing but ever grateful for it.