by Jim Forest
I am sometimes asked how the son of atheist parents ended up not only a Christian but a member of the Orthodox Church.
In fact it wasn’t so big a leap as it sounds. For starters my parents weren’t people for whom atheism was a religion unto itself. Their atheism seemed to mainly to do with being on the Left. Their real interest was in the down-and-out — people who were being treated like beasts, underpaid or jobless, trapped in slums, without health care, etc. When I was growing up, they were both Communists. It was part of Marxist dogma that there was no god. For them it was not so much a question of agreeing with that tenet of Marxism as not disagreeing. In fact both of them had been shaped and inspired by their religious roots. Mother was a Methodist Communist, my father a Catholic Communist. Mother’s parents, both devout Methodists, raised their children to take Christianity seriously, and with an eye to its social implications. Dad, a fervent Catholic in his youth, had once looked forward to becoming a priest.
I was born in November 1941 in the Vatican of Mormonism, Salt Lake City, Utah. At the time my Father was working as regional organizer for the Communist Party and my Mother was a social worker. When I asked about Mormons later in life, Mother spoke with respect of the ways Mormons helped each other when anyone was out of work or facing other troubles. However, she tended to judge religion by how attentive its members were not just to each other but to the woes of the world. On that score, the Mormons didn’t impress her.
During the several years that followed, I have only splinters of memory. There is a photo of me when I was about a year old, standing upright while my mother, wearing a beret and smoking a cigarette, is sitting on a park bench in a Chicago park. Later we lived in Denver, where my brother, Richard, was born in 1943. Dad was in the Army part of the Second World War, stationed in Hawaii. In 1944 Dad fell in love with a Communist Party co-worker and filed for divorce. During the next decade, he was an occasional visitor whose home was far away. Remarkably, divorce didn’t seem to embitter Mother. I cannot recall her ever speaking ill of Dad.
Following the divorce, my mother, brother and I moved to Red Bank, New Jersey. This was the town where Mother had grown up in. While her parents by then had both died, her sister and brother-in-law were living there. It took some good will and squeezing, but we lived with them until we had a house of our own. Mother’s identification with people on the other side of the tracks brought us to buy a bungalow on the other side of the tracks, a small house in a mainly black neighborhood where indoor plumbing, such as we had, was still the exception. Many local roads were unpaved. One neighbor, Libby, nearly a century old and black as coal, had been born in slavery days in Tennessee, where my grandmother had been raised. Earlier in Libby’s life she had worked in my grandparents’ house.
Radical music was part of our upbringing. Mother hadn’t much of a voice, but from time to time sang such songs as “This Land is Your Land,” “Joe Hill” and “The Internationale” with its line, “Arise ye prisoners of starvation, arise ye wretched of the earth, for justice thunders condemnation, a better’s world’s in birth.” These were, for Mother, not so much songs as hymns to be sung with Methodist enthusiasm. On our wind-up 78 rpm record player, we played records of Paul Robeson, the Weavers, Burl Ives and Pete Seeger, all singers whose voices tilted to the Left. From these I learned a number of spirituals — songs about baptism, salvation, laying down my sword and shield, crossing the River Jordan with angelic chariots swinging low. The music of the black Christianity was the one of the few acceptable sources of religion for American radicals. I also sometimes heard spirituals being sung when I walked past the nearby African Methodist Episcopal Church.
In her youth, while a student at Smith College, Mother had reached the conclusion that religion was mythology, yet I doubt she ever fully abandoned belief in God. She never said a critical word about religious faith. When I was eight or so, I asked her if there was a God and was impressed by the regret in her voice when she said she didn’t think so. Even more than her answer, her sadness remained with me. Why such sorrow? Clearly she missed the Methodist Church she had grown up in. Especially at Easter and Christmas, religious homesickness got the better of her and so we attended Methodist services, sitting up in the balcony. One year she sent my brother and me to the church’s summer school. While this was a help for her as a working mother (she was a psychiatric social worker on the staff of a state mental hospital in Marlboro), I have no doubt she hoped my brother and I would soak up the kind of information about the deeper meaning of life that she had received as a child.
The minister of the church, Roger Squire, was an exceptional man whose qualities included a gift for noticing people in balconies and connecting with children. His occasional visits to our house were delightful events for my brother and me. Only as an adult did it cross my mind how remarkable it was, with the Cold War in full swing, that he would make it a point to come into our unglamourous neighborhood to knock on the kitchen door of a home that contained a Communist and her two sons.
One of the incidents that marked me as a child was the hospitality of the Squire family to two young women from Hiroshima and Nagasaki who had survived the nuclear bombing but were badly scarred. American religious peace groups had brought them and others to the United States for plastic surgery and found them temporary homes in and near New York City — not an easy undertaking for hosts in the fifties when the word “peace” was regarded by many as a synonym for Communist sympathies and when many people had no desire to think about, not to say see with their own eyes, what American nuclear bombs had done to actual people. In fact, I could only guess at the results myself, as the faces of the two women were draped with veils of silk. Through them, I learned about the human cost of war and the effects of nuclear weapons, and through the Squire family I had a sturdy idea of what it meant to conform one’s life to the Gospel rather than to politics and the opinions of neighbors.
Yet the Methodist Church as such didn’t excite me. While I was always glad to see Rev. Squire and enjoyed the stories and jokes he sprinkled in sermons to underline his points, long-time sitting is hard work for a child. I felt no urge to be baptized. Neither was I won over by the nearby Dutch Reformed Church which, due to a neighbor’s invitation, I attended for a few weeks and which I remember best for its unsuccessful attempt to get me to memorize the Ten Commandments.
The big event in my religious development as a child was thanks to a school friend inviting me Christ Episcopal Church in nearby Shrewsbury. It was among the oldest buildings in our region, its white clapboard scarred with musket balls fired in the Revolutionary war. The blood of dying soldiers had stained the church’s pews and floor, and though the stains could no longer be seen, it stirred me to think about what had happened there.
What engaged me still more was the form of worship, which was altar- rather than pulpit-centered. It was an Episcopal parish in which sacraments and ritual activity were the main events. (Being a parent has helped me realize that ritual is something that children naturally like. For all the experiments we make as children, we are born conservatives who want our parents to operate in predictable, patterned, reliable ways. We want meals to be on the table at a certain time and in a specific way, and in general like to know what to expect. We want the ordinary events of life to have what now I think of as a liturgical shape.)
I didn’t know it at the time, but the parish would have been described by many Episcopalians as “high church” — vestments, acolytes, candles, processions, incense, liturgical seasons with their special colors, much of the service in plain chant, communion every Sunday. The result was that I got a taste of a more ancient form of Christianity than I had found among Methodists or other Protestants. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be part of it. It was in this church that, age ten, I was baptized. I became an acolyte (thus getting to wear a bright red robe with crisp white surplice) and learned to assist the pastor, Father Theodore La Van, at the altar. His baptismal gift to me was an ancient Byzantine coin that bore a relief image of Christ on one side.
I learned much of the Book of Common Prayer by heart and rang a bell when the bread and wine were being consecrated. In Sunday school after the service I learned something of the history of Christianity, its sources and traditions, with much attention to Greek words. I remember Father La Van writing “Eucharist” on the blackboard in both English and Greek, explaining it meant thanksgiving, and that it was made up of smaller Greek words that meant “well” and “grace.” The Eucharist was a well of grace. Such lessons put the ancient world in reaching distance.
But the friendship which had brought me to the church in the first place fell apart later that year and Father La Van was dismissed. Years later I was told some in the parish thought he drank too much. I found other things to do with my Sundays than go to church. My religious interest went into recess. Within a year or two I was trying to make up my mind whether I was an atheist or an agnostic. I decided on the latter, because I couldn’t dismiss the sense I often had of God being real. Like my parents, I loved nature and wilderness, and these suggested to me the existence of God. Wherever I looked, whether at ants with a magnifying glass or at the moon with a telescope, everything in the natural order was awe-inspiring, and awe is a religious state of mind. Creation made it impossible for me to dismiss God, even if it was a rather impersonal God — God as prime mover rather than God among us.
It wasn’t until 1959, when I was turning 18, that I began to think more deeply about religion and what God might mean in my life. By then I had dropped out of high school and joined the Navy. Lately out of boot camp, I was studying meteorology at the Navy Weather School at the Naval Air Base in Lakehurst, New Jersey.
At the turning point in his life, St. Paul was struck blind on the road to Damascus. The equivalent moment in my own life is linked to a more prosaic setting: Saturday night at the movies. The film at the base theater that night happened to be “The Nun’s Story,” based on the autobiography of a Belgian woman who entered a convent and later worked at a missionary hospital in the African Congo. In the end, the nun (played by Audrey Hepburn) became an ex-nun. Conscience was at the heart of the story: conscience leading a young woman into the convent and eventually leading her elsewhere, but never away from her faith. I later discovered the film was much criticized in the Catholic press for its portrayal both of loneliness and of the abuse of authority in religious community.
If it had been Hollywood’s usual religious movie of “The Bells of St. Mary’s” variety, it would have had no impact on my life. But this was a true story, well-acted and honestly told, and without a happy ending, though in the woman’s apparent failure as a nun one found both integrity and faith. Against the rough surface of the story, I had a compelling glimpse of the Catholic Church with its rich and complex structures of worship, community and service.
After the film I went for a walk, heading away from the buildings and sidewalks. It was a clear August evening. Gazing at the stars, I felt an overwhelming happiness such as I had never known. This seemed to rise up through the grass and to shower down on me in the starlight. I felt I was floating on God’s love like a leaf on water. I was deeply aware that everything that is or was or ever will be is joined together in God. For the first time in my life, the blackness beyond the stars wasn’t terrifying.
I didn’t think much about the film itself that night, except for a few words of Jesus that had been read to the novices during their first period of formation and which seemed to recite themselves within me as I walked: “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you have, and give it to the poor, and you will have great treasure in heaven, and come, follow me.” I had nothing to sell but the words “follow me” landed in the core of my being.
I went to sleep that night eager to go to Mass. I knew I wanted to return to Christianity and was strongly drawn to Catholicism.
The next morning I went to a nearby Catholic church but found the Mass disappointing. I felt like an anthropologist observing a strange tribal rite. I had only a vague idea what was happening. There seemed little connection between the priest and the congregation. Most of the worship was in mumbled, hurried, often inaudible Latin. As for the sermon, probably I would have preferred it had it been in Latin. People in the pews seemed either bored or were concentrating on their rosaries. At least they knew when to sit, stand, and kneel. I struggled awkwardly to keep up with them. At the end of Mass, there was no exchange of greetings or further contact between people who had been praying together. Catholic worship seemed to have all the intimacy of people waiting in a bus station.
I started looking for a church where there was engagement and beauty and at least something of what I had hoped to find in Catholicism. The Anglo-Catholic segment of the Episcopal Church, which I had begun to know as a child, seemed the obvious choice, and it happened that another sailor at the Weather School had grown up in such a parish. He shared his Book of Common Prayer with me and, in the weeks that followed, we occasionally read its services of morning and evening prayer together.
After graduating, I spent a two-week Christmas leave in an Episcopal monastery — Holy Cross — on the Hudson River not far from West Point, a joyous experience in which I thought I had found everything I was hoping for in the Catholic Church: liturgy, the sacraments, and a religious community that combined prayer, study and service to others. Having been assigned to a Navy unit at the Weather Bureau in Washington, D.C., I joined a local Episcopal parish, St. Paul’s, which the monks at Holy Cross had told me about.
Those months were full of grace. So why am I not writing an essay on “Why I am an Episcopalian”? Perhaps the main item was that I had never quite let go of the Catholic Church. I could never walk past a Catholic church without stopping in to pray. A hallmark of the Catholic Church was that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved on or near the altar awaiting anyone who came in. Its presence meant this wasn’t just a room that came to life from time to time when Mass was being celebrated, but a place where many of the curtains that usually hide God were lifted, even if you were the only person present. In those days, the doors of Catholic churches always seemed open.
Another factor were many excellent books that found their way into my hands — among these, Thomas Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, G.K. Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and The Everlasting Man, and The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement.
There were negative elements as well. One of these was an experience at the Episcopal monastery I had first visited at Christmas. Back in the Spring for Easter, on the last day of my stay one of the monks asked to see me in the visitors’ room. Once there, he embraced and kissed me. With some difficulty, I struggled free and later that day returned by bus to Washington. From there I wrote to the prior of the community, telling him what had happened. His reply wasn’t helpful. He might have pointed out that monks, like everyone else, sometimes suffer loneliness and may sexual longings of one sort or another and sometimes don’t manage them very well. Rather he said that homosexuality was often an indication of a monastic vocation. As my own sexual orientation was of the more common variety, I wondered if the prior meant I wasn’t the right sort of person to be visiting. After his letter, I had no desire to return. The experience added to my growing doubts about remaining in the Episcopal Church, uncomfortably divided as it was into high, low and middle liturgical strata.
Yet I still had reservations about becoming Catholic and so began to explore the varieties of Christianity in Washington, visiting every sort of church, black and white, high and low. Among them was a Greek Orthodox cathedral, but I sensed one had to be Greek to be a part of it. I returned several times to the black church on the campus of Howard University, a friendly place with wonderful singing, but felt that, as a white person, I would always be an outsider. If I could have changed skin color by wishing, I would have been tempted to turn black in the Howard chapel.
As the weeks went by I came to realize that the Catholic churches I so often stopped in to pray were places in which I felt an at-homeness I hadn’t found anywhere else. On November 26,1960, after several months of instruction, I was received into the Catholic Church.
What had most attracted me to Catholicism was the Liturgy, in its basics the same no matter where one was. Though in some parishes it was a dry, mechanical affair, there were other parishes where the care taken in every aspect of worship was profound. While for some people, worship in an ancient language is a barrier, in my own case I came to love the Latin. Luckily I had studied Latin in high school. I was happy to be participating in a language of worship that was being used simultaneously in every part of the world and which also was a bridge of connection with past generations. I learned many Latin prayers by heart, especially anything that could be sung. “To sing is to pray twice,” one of the Church Fathers says. How true!
In the mid-sixties, in the early stages of liturgical change following the Second Vatican Council, I felt a complex mixture of expectation, gratitude and anxiety. Despite my private love of Latin, I could hardly disagree with the compelling arguments put forward for scrapping it. I didn’t want to hang onto what clearly got in the way for others. Unfortunately, the Englishing of the Liturgy was not carried out by poets. We ended up with the English language in its flattest state. In the process we lost not only Latin but Gregorian chant, a great pity. Most of the music that took its place was pedestrian. The body language of prayer was in retreat. The holy water fonts inside church entrances were often dry.
Yet, like most Catholics, I uttered few words of complaint. I knew that change is not a comfortable experience. And I thought of myself as a modern person. I was embarrassed by my difficulties adjusting to change. Also I had no sense of connection with those who were protesting the changes. These tended to be the rigid Catholics of the sort who were more papal than the Pope and politically on the far right. (I had never been attracted to that icy wing of Catholicism that argued one must be a Catholic, and a most obedient Catholic, in order to be saved.)
All this said, there was a positive side to Catholicism that in many ways compensated for what was missing in the Liturgy. For all its problems, which no church is without, the Catholic Church has the strength of being a world community in which many members see themselves as being on the same footing as fellow Catholics on the other side of the globe, in contrast with many Christians who see their church first of all as a national institution. The Catholic Church also possesses a strong sense of co-responsibility for the social order, and a relatively high degree of independence from all political and economic structures.
This aspect of the Catholic Church finds many expressions. I had joined one of them, the Catholic Worker movement, after being discharged from the Navy as a conscientious objector in the spring of 1961. Founded by Dorothy Day in 1933, the Catholic Worker is best known for its houses of hospitality — places of welcome mainly in run-down urban areas where those in need can receive food, clothing, and shelter. It is a movement in some ways similar to the early Franciscans, attempting to live out the Gospels in a simple, literal way. It is basic Christianity to have as little as possible — what Dorothy Day called voluntary poverty. Jesus said to do good to and pray for those who curse you, to love your enemies, to put away the sword; and Catholic Workers try to do this as well, refusing to take part in war or to sanction violence. The Catholic Worker view of the world is no less critical than that of the Prophets and the New Testament.
I also found in the Catholic Worker movement a remarkable interest in the writings of the Church Fathers. One often encountered quotations from St. John Chrysostom, Saint Basil, St. Gregory Nazianzen and other voices of the early Church in movement’s widely read publication, The Catholic Worker.
One of the surprises in getting to know Dorothy Day was her special love for Russian literature, most of all the work of Dostoevsky. At times she recited passages from The Brothers Karamazov that had shaped her understanding of Christianity. Mainly these had to do with the saintly staretz Father Zosima and his teaching on active love — “love in action is often a harsh and dreadful thing compared with love in dreams.” Dorothy all but demanded that I read Dostoevsky. She also had a deep appreciation of the liturgical life of the Eastern Church. It was Dorothy who first took me into a Russian Orthodox Church, a cathedral in upper Manhattan where I met a priest who, many years later, I was to meet again in Moscow, Father Matvay Stadniuk. (In 1988 he organized the first public project of voluntary service by Church members since Soviet power had launched its war on religion.) At a Liturgy Dorothy took me to, I first learned the Old Slavonic words Gospodi pomiloi (Lord have mercy), the most often repeated prayer in Orthodox worship services.
One evening Dorothy brought me to a Manhattan apartment for a meeting of the Third Hour, a Christian ecumenical discussion group founded by a Russian émigré, Helene Iswolsky. Participants that evening included the Orthodox theologian, Father Alexander Schmemann, the poet W.H. Auden, and Alexander Kerensky, who had been prime minister of Russia after the abdication of Czar Nicholas II and before the Bolshevik coup led by Lenin. As I recall, the conversation that evening was in part about the Russian word for spirituality, dukhovnost. The Russian understanding of spiritual life, it was explained, not only suggests a relationship between the praying person and God, but has profound social content: moral capacity, social responsibility, courage, wisdom, mercy, a readiness to forgive, a way of life centered in love. While much of the discussion flew over my head, I recall talk about iurodivi, the “holy fools” who revealed Christ in ways that would be regarded as insanity in the West, and stralniki, those who wandered Russia in endless pilgrimage, begging for bread and silently reciting with every breath and step the Jesus Prayer, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
Life at the Catholic Worker was never without surprises. One of them was the discovery of Dorothy’s friendship with the Trappist monk and author, Thomas Merton, whose autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, had been a factor in my becoming a Catholic. Thanks to Dorothy’s encouragement, I came to be one of Merton’s correspondents and later his guest at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky. Following that first visit, he and I exchanged letters frequently — a seven-year conversation by mail that ended only with his death in 1968.
I also found in Merton a special interest in Eastern Christianity. Merton occasionally sent me photographs of Russian and Byzantine icons. As I was to discover in writing a biography of him, icons had played an important part in his conversion to Christianity and remained significant to the end of his life.
Thanks mainly to Merton and Dorothy Day, I was more aware than many Western Christians of the Eastern Church, but I had no more thought about becoming Orthodox than a visitor to the zoo thinks about becoming a flamingo. Orthodoxy seemed to me more an ethnic club than a place for an American whose roots were mainly Dutch and Irish. What eventually converted my mainly academic interest to something more intimate and compelling was actual encounter with the Orthodox Church in Russia.
Once again, a turning point in my life was triggered by a movie. In the Fall of 1982, I was in Cambridge, Massachusetts to give a lecture at the Harvard Divinity School. One evening I joined my friend Robert Ellsberg in going to a local cinema to see “Moscow Doesn’t Believe in Tears,” a Soviet film that had just received an Academy Award. It was a story set in the Brezhnev years that follows three women who met by chance as roommates in a Moscow residence for women. The film follows their struggles to build careers and families. Despite differences in temperament and ambition, they create enduring friendships. The stories told are comic, tragic, convincing and socially revealing. Muscovites became quite three-dimensional and not simply cardboard figures living in the grey world of Communism.
What was so important to me at the time about this entirely non-political film was the window it opened on ordinary Russian life. Walking out of the theater, I realized I had spent a large part of my life trying to prevent war between the US and the Soviet Union — I had been secretary of the Catholic Peace Fellowship, then been part of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation and now was General Secretary of the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, working at its headquarters in Holland — yet had never been to Russia or even thought of going. The awful truth was that I knew more about American weapons than about the people at whom they were aimed. The same was true of everyone I knew who was involved in peace work. It was a shocking realization.
I wondered how we could regard what we were doing as peace work if it mainly had to do with informing people what nuclear war would do to the planet we live on and its population? I recalled of Thomas Merton’s insight: “The root of war is fear.” If that was true, would it not be better if we who sought peace in the world focused on building bridges rather than selling nightmares? After all, the weapons of mass destruction and the missiles that delivered them were chiefly the result of fear and ignorance.
That evening at the movies in Cambridge set me on a different course. A substantial part of my work for the International Fellowship of Reconciliation in the years that followed had to do with trying to open East-West doors that had long been locked on both sides. On the Russian side, there was a lot of worry about letting people into the country whom they knew opposed Russia’s war in Afghanistan (then in the middle of its decade-long run) and who were highly critical of the Soviet repressive political system. No doubt they worried, should we be allowed in, that we would demonstrate on Red Square.
It took a year of persistent effort to arrange a three-day conference (the theme was violence, nonviolence and liberation) organized by my own organization, the International Fellowship of Reconciliation, and hosted by the Russian Orthodox Church. It was probably the first such event in Russia since the Bolshevik overthrow of the Russian government in 1917. Our small conference helped pave the way for many organizations, academic bodies and businesses to develop their own contacts and arrange their own events and programs in Soviet Russia. What happened in the years that followed helped create a climate for greatly improved relations between the U.S. and Russia, which in turn led to still more face-to-face contact. Thousands of people from the U.S. and its Western allies began to visit Russia for business, cultural and purely touristic reasons, and more and more Russians came to the West. Eventually, in the Gorbachev-Reagan period, there were inter-governmental breakthroughs resulting in treaties that significantly reduced the number of nuclear weapons and missiles.
That first meeting in Moscow would have been useful no matter where it had happened, but for me it had an unexpected spiritual impact thanks to the event being in Russia. The first night I was there, too excited to sleep, I took a post-midnight walk from the hotel where I was staying all the way to Red Square and back. I felt as if I were exploring the dark side of the moon.
In the days that followed, visiting some of the city’s churches, I experienced a strong sense of connection with Russian Orthodox believers. The vitality of religious life, despite decades of severe repression and the martyrdom of many, far outstripped my expectations. This was not a Church on the brink of the extinction Lenin and Stalin had planned.
That first trip in the USSR was something like riding through the Louvre on a bicycle. I saw wonderful things, but too fast to take them in and with far too little understanding of Russian and Soviet history to make much sense of even those things which weren’t a blur. But the trip was enough for me to know that I wanted to come back, see things more slowly, and talk with Russians. I had a particular sense of connection with the Russian Orthodox Church and longed to have the chance to meet believers informally and face to face.
Back in Holland, I wrote to the bishop who headed of the publishing department of the Moscow Patriarchate, asking if I might have the cooperation of his department in writing a book about the Orthodox Church in Russia. It would not be, I said, an academic work. Others had done such books and in any event I was not qualified. But I had spent much of my adult life doing interviews for peace and church magazines, worked for various newspapers and press services, had written two biographies and many essays. I felt I could write a book about Russian believers, if the church could provide a translator and help me visit centers of Orthodoxy large and small. Thus began work on Pilgrim to the Russian Church, a book that would be published in 1988.
Not many months later, I was back in Moscow as a guest of the Russian Orthodox Church for another small conference. This time I had arranged for a three-day private visit ahead of the meeting. I was met at the airport by Tatiana Tchernikova, a devout Christian, an expert on Russian history and culture plus a gifted translator who was on the staff of the Church’s Department for External Affairs. Together we visited churches, monasteries, the one seminary near Moscow and art museums which housed icons as well as more modern works of religious art.
There were many high points, but perhaps the most significant was taking part in the Liturgy at the Epiphany Cathedral. This wasn’t one of Moscow’s oldest or most beautiful churches, though it has an outstanding choir. The icons, coming from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, were a far cry from the work of such iconographers as Rublev and Theofan the Greek. Yet being in that throng of devout worshipers was a more illuminating experience than I had had in far more beautiful churches.
It was an ordinary Sunday, but the church was as crowded as a church in the West would be only on Christmas or Easter. As is usual in the Russian Orthodox Church, there were no pews, just a few benches and chairs along the walls for those who needed them, but I found it freeing to be on my feet. Though at times it was uncomfortable to be standing for so long, being upright made me more attentive. It was like a move from the bleachers to the field. (I’d love to know how chairs and benches made their way into churches. My guess is that it was connected with the Reformation’s re-centering of services around the pulpit rather than the altar. Gradually chairs and then pews became a normal fixture of church architecture.)
I was fascinated by the linking of spiritual and physical activity. Making the sign of the cross was a major element of prayer — Orthodox believers seemed to cross themselves and bow almost continually. As I watched the rippling of bowing heads in the tightly packed congregation, I was reminded of the patterns the wind makes blowing across afield of wheat. At first I stood like a statue, though wanting to do what those around me were doing. It seemed so appropriate for an incarnational religion to link body and soul through these simple gestures. It must have taken me most of an hour before I began to pray in the Russian style.
All the while two choirs, in balconies on either side of the cupola, were singing. For the Creed and Our Father, the congregation joined with the choirs, singing with great force.
The sense of people being deeply at prayer was as solid and tangible as Russian black bread. I felt that, if the walls and pillars of the church were taken away, the roof would rest securely on the prayers of the congregation below. I have rarely experienced this kind of intense spiritual presence.
In the course of my many trips in Russia, I came to love the unhurried tradition of worship in Orthodoxy, deeply appreciating its absent-mindedness about the clock. The Liturgy rarely started on time, never ended on time, and lasted two or three hours, still longer on major feasts. I discovered that Orthodox believers are willing to give to worship the kind of time and devotion that Italians give to their evening meals.
At first somewhat scandalized by the fact that many adults in church did not receive communion, I gradually became aware of how deep and mindful is Orthodox preparation for communion, with stress on forgiveness of others as a precondition for reception of the sacrament.
Receiving communion was often linked with confession the night or morning before. It was impressive watching confession in Orthodox churches. The penitent and priest weren’t tucked away in a closet but stood in the open, within sight of on the iconostasis, their faces inclined toward each other, nearly touching. There is a tenderness about it that never ceases to amaze me.
I quickly came to appreciate Orthodoxy for taking literally Jesus’ teaching, “Let the children come to me and hinder them not.” In our Catholic parish in Holland, our daughter Anne had gone from confusion and hurt to pain and anger after her many futile attempts to receive communion along with Nancy and me. The problem, priests and others tried to explain, was that she hadn’t reached “the age of reason” (who has?) and therefore couldn’t receive the instruction considered a prerequisite to post-baptismal sacramental life. In Orthodox parishes, all children, once baptized, are at the front of the line to receive communion.
I came to esteem the married clergy of Orthodoxy. It changes the climate of parish life. While there are many Orthodox monks and nuns, with celibacy an honored state, it seemed to me marriage was more valued in Orthodoxy than Catholicism. While chastity is for everyone, celibacy is not regarded as a higher state or a short-cut to heaven.
Praying with icons was an aspect of Orthodox spirituality that had begun opening its doors for my wife and me even before we became Orthodox. During a three-month sabbatical in 1985, while living near Jerusalem and teaching at the Ecumenical Institute, we bought a Russian “Vladimirskaya” icon of Mary and Jesus and began praying before it. That small icon, possibly brought to Jerusalem by a Russian pilgrim in the 19th century, became a school of prayer. We learned much about prayer by simply standing in front of it.
By the end of 1987, both Nancy and I had gotten to know the Church in Russia first hand, to the point that we envied those who belonged to it despite the many political and social problems Russian Christians faced. Oddly enough, it didn’t occur to me that there might be a similar quality of worship in Orthodox churches in the West. I thought that Orthodoxy was like certain wines that are best drunk at the vineyard.
Meanwhile, we were searching for a Catholic parish that would be a good fit. Because of our work, Holland had become our home. We lived in Alkmaar, a city northwest of Amsterdam which had nine Catholic parishes. Each had its own distinct identity. On the one hand there were parishes that seemed linked to the larger Church only by frayed threads. One parish we were part of for a time never used the Creed and one Sunday replaced the Gospel reading with a children’s story. It was very social but on its own path liturgically. The parish we next joined was, in its ritual life, clearly part of the Catholic Church, but here we experienced no sense of welcome or warmth. The only words anyone said to us occurred when we received communion: “the Body of Christ.” Finally we became part of a parish that struck us as both liturgically healthy and welcoming. This time we joined the choir in order to be more a part of a church community, but we were easily the youngest members of the choir and felt isolated. During the coffee break at choir rehearsal, the main topic of conversation was how much more vital the parish had been in earlier years. As before, Anne continued to be upset about her exclusion from communion.
Then in January 1988, we received an from Father Alexis Voogd, pastor of the St. Nicholas of Myra Church in Amsterdam, to participate in a special ecumenical service to mark the beginning of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Millennium celebration: a thousand years since the baptism of the citizens of Kiev in 988. He also teased me: “You have visited practically very Orthodox church in Russia but never visited the Russian Orthodox parish nearest to you!” For several years Father Alexis had been one of the people giving me advice about people to meet and places to visit in Russia.
Soon after Nancy and I were part of a gathering of Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox Christians attending a service that was a hodge-podge of speeches by clergy from various local churches (the Catholic bishop of Haarlem, also the head of the Dutch Council of Churches) interspersed with Orthodox hymns sung by the parish choir and some comments about the Baptism of Russia from Father Alexis.
If it was just that ecumenical service, perhaps we might not have returned, but at the reception in the parish hall that followed we were startled to experience a kind of interaction that I had rarely found in any church in any country. Walking to the train station afterward, we decided to come back to see what the Liturgy was like.
The following Sunday we discovered that the Orthodox Liturgy in Amsterdam was every bit as remarkable as it in Russia. And that was that. We managed only once or twice to return to Mass in our former Catholic parish in Alkmaar. Before a month had passed we realized that a prayer we had been living with along time had been answered in an unexpected way: we had found a church we wholeheartedly could belong to and in fact couldn’t bear not going to, even if it meant getting out of bed early and traveling by train to Amsterdam every Sunday. On Palm Sunday 1988, I was received into the Orthodox Church. Nancy made the same step on Pentecost.
In many ways it wasn’t such a big step from where we had been. Orthodoxy and Catholicism have so much in common: sacraments, apostolic succession, similar calendars of feasts and fasts, devotion to the Mother of God, and much more. Yet in Orthodoxy we found an even deeper sense of connection with the early Church and a far more vital form of liturgical life. Much that has been neglected in Catholicism and abandoned in Protestant churches, including confession and fasting, remain central in Orthodox life. We quickly found what positive, life-renewing gifts they were, and saw that they were faring better in a climate that was less legalistic but in many ways more demanding.
Yet we have never thought of ourselves as ex-Catholics. I occasionally describe myself as being a cobblestone on the bridge linking the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
A friend once asked me to describe the difference between the two churches. I said it’s something like the difference one might see in two parallel highways. The first impression is that they are identical, but after a little while, you notice that the traffic on one of the highways is going much slower and that, in contrast to the other, there are no police cars.
The religious movement in my life, which from the beginning was influenced by my parents, also influenced them. While neither followed me into Catholicism or Orthodoxy, in the early sixties my mother — after reading Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain — returned to the Methodist Church and remained much a part of the local church to the end of her life. Despite her age and failing eyesight, she continued in her struggle for the poor, much to the consternation of local politicians and bureaucrats. Though it’s not clear whether or not my father ever left the Communist Party, he eventually became a Unitarian. He enjoyed the joke about Unitarians believing at most in one God. In the last two decades of his life he was especially active in developing low-income and inter-racial housing projects in California. A cooperative he helped found in Santa Rosa was singled out for several honors, including the Certificate of National Merit from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Always deeply supportive of my religious commitment, I recall with particular happiness hearing him reading aloud to my step-mother from my book, Pilgrim to the Russian Church. In the spring of 1990, very weakened by cancer, he borrowed the crucifix I normally wear around my neck. It was in his hands when he died.
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