by Nancy Forest-Flier
I grew up in New Jersey in a family that was deeply rooted in the Reformed Church, a small main-stream Protestant denomination with roots in the Dutch Reformed Church. In the 1950s,most of the members of our church were still children and grandchildren of Dutch immigrants. We went to church twice on Sunday, we all attended Sunday School and my parents were teachers, we rushed off to church again on Wednesday night after supper for “Family Night”which included catechism and choir practice, I was president of my Youth Fellowship and my parents were both youth group leaders. Our church was our spiritual and social center.
But for me, church was more than habit or social matrix or ethnic identity. It was a rich, Biblical, prayer-filled atmosphere which encouraged the asking of important questions. Like other churches, our church communicated its theology by means of certain phrases which contained essential truths and were easily taught and learned. Among them were “Ask Jesus to come into your heart,” “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal savior,” “We preach Christ crucified,” and “Christ died once and for all.” I found these phrases provocative, and I tried to learn what they meant. What does it mean, Jesus coming into your heart? What is a personal savior, and why “personal”? Was there another kind of savior besides “personal”? What does it mean, God loves you? What does “Jesus died for your sins” mean? What does it mean to be forgiven? Who am I and what am I supposed to do when I grow up? Who is God, anyway? And what does it mean that Jesus was his son? What does it mean to be saved? Saved from what?
I took these points of theology quite seriously, but I was puzzled by what they meant. If the church was throwing around words like “heaven,” “hell,” and “eternity,” then these questions were of vital importance, I reasoned. There must be good, understandable answers.
Of all the questions about religion that began to plague me as an adolescent, the one I remember that really had me stumped occurred during Sunday School, when our teacher, who was also the student minister, asked us, “Why do we go to church every Sunday?” To praise God? someone suggested. But you can do that anywhere, said the student minister. To be with other Christians? You don’t have to go to church on Sunday to do that, he said. To get re-charged, like a battery, I proposed. He just laughed. It seemed that every answer we offered was inadequate, and I really don’t remember coming up with any good one.
I continued to go to church each week, but there seemed less and less reason to be there. We were assured that no matter what we did, we would be saved by faith, not by “works.” We were made to feel especially nervous about signs of Phariseeism, of doing things in the hope that the action would somehow effect our salvation. In a Reformation backlash against Catholicism that was still burning after 400 years, we were taught that true religion occurred in your “heart” as opposed to your body. The things the body did — hand and body gestures, reciting written prayers, handling beads, eating bread and wine — were meaningless and even dangerous. There was a clear division made for us between body and soul, and the body and the soul could not participate together in worship. It was either one or the other, and God’s way was in the heart and the head.
So for me the Sunday church service came to be little more than a chance to hear a more-or-less instructive sermon. It was Bible study with some hymns and prayers. Fortunately, our minister was a charismatic, brilliant man, and we did learn a great deal about the Bible. But his successor, who stepped in when I was in high school, just couldn’t match his predecessor’s skill as a preacher. I couldn’t bear to listen to his sermons, which seemed to me silly at best, self-righteous and laden with anti-Catholic prejudice at worst. There didn’t seem to be much reason to go to church when the sermons were poor because the sermon was the center of the service. And there was a certain amount of irony in that discovery, because we had been taught that as Protestants we could confess our sins directly to God, unlike the Catholics who, we were taught, could only reach God through a priest. I realized that in a Protestant worship service, where the sermon is central, if the minister is unintelligent or mean-spirited it poisons everything in the service: the prayers, the singing, and certainly the sermon. At least Catholics had their Mass and their Eucharist, which remained the same regardless of the temperament of the priest.
But I had been raised in an atmosphere so thoroughly anti-Catholic and opposed to any sort of ritual (the phrase was always “empty ritual,” as though there were no other kind) that leaving the Reformed Church to become Catholic was something that didn’t even occur to me. I just lost interest.
It wasn’t that the Reformed Church was unable to justify itself adequately to me. I felt no anger toward the church, no deep disappointment. I think that if that had been the case I simply would have given up going to church, period. It was that the Reformed Church, God bless it, had made me aware of the Important Questions in life and instilled in me a deep hunger to answer those questions. That the Reformed Church’s own answers did not satisfy me didn’t matter all that much. I was grateful to have been set on a spiritual journey, grateful to have been taught how to pray, happy to have memorized so many Bible verses, and the books of the Bible and the Ten Commandments. I figured I had been well-prepared, and I was ready to move on.
Then I had a vision. In retrospect I call it a vision because I truly believe that God sent it to me for a reason; that it was some supernatural interference intended to add something to my thought pool. It happened on a warm, beautiful spring afternoon. I was coming home from high school, the last lone student on the school bus. I stepped off the bus at my stop, a street corner in an altogether ordinary suburban New Jersey setting, and as the bus pulled away I felt something strange. It was as though I could feel the world as a globe, and I could feel it turning around. I sensed that I was a figure on that globe. I stood still and felt the steady movement of the world, around and around. It was as though I were at the uppermost point, a sort of pole, and the world was turning around on the axis on which I stood. It was such a real feeling that I had to steady myself to keep from falling over. Then I slowly turned around on my axis and gazed at what was visible from where I stood: the four houses on the four corners of the crossroad, the tall pine trees in all the front yards, the mailboxes. And I realized that there was nobody in the whole world who could see what I was seeing from my great height: not even famous people, not even the President or the Beatles, not even terribly rich people. It wasn’t that my view was so special, but I suddenly knew that it was entirely unique.
I remember going home and telling my mother, “Mom, I just felt like I was my own North Pole!” I could understand the vision no further than that at the time. But it has remained a fountain of understanding for me. The older I grew the more it revealed to me about myself, about other people, about God. I can say that this vision is the most important thing that happened to me in my life, and I am certain that it was a gift from God who could see that I needed something very big very fast.
In time I might have dismissed the vision as simply odd and adolescent, but I began reading about other people who have had the same experience. It’s been like finding out that other people have dreams about missing final exams, when you thought you were the only one. Not all these people were led into the Orthodox Church because of it, however.
I stayed in the Reformed Church and even went to a Reformed Church college, Hope College, in Holland, Michigan. I must say that Hope is an excellent school; I say that even now. It isn’t like some church-related colleges that are related in name only, with no apparent religious connection affecting campus life. Neither is it a protective, xenophobic place where professors are all required to be members of the school’s denomination and students must sign conduct pledges. Chapel attendance at Hope was mandatory, and we had to take courses in Old and New Testament and a Senior Bible elective. But college life was exciting, vibrant and full. The first Catholic intellectual I ever met was my Chaucer professor at Hope. As she explained what Chaucer’s England must have been like, and what the English language was like which he spoke, we learned what the world must have been like before the Reformation.
I remember one anecdote she left with us: the word free, which to us today means the liberty to do whatever we please within limits without anybody telling us what to do, did not have that meaning hundreds of years ago. Free, she said, once meant “dear to the chief.” That is, it was a way of describing a feudal relationship. You were either free or you were a serf. You performed your duties either because there was a special bond of affection between you and your lord, or because you had economic ties with your lord which necessitated that you perform certain functions. The first relationship, that of the free man, involved commitment and love; the second was strictly survival. The ancient meaning of freedom implied dependence, commitment, and love; it never happened in isolation. [Endnote: Later in graduate school I did a language exercise on the word free . After studying it in the Oxford English Dictionary I discovered that the ancient and original Indo-European word which gave birth to free must have meant love or beloved. From this source, all sorts of cousin-words were born which still exist in different languages: words for love, beloved, dear, and friend. The English word friend is a sister-word of free.]
This was a powerful bit of news for me. It challenged two basic truths of Calvinism: that our salvation is a matter of predestination and not free will, and that we are saved on an individual basis. “The truth shall make you free,” I had learned. Freedom was an aspect of the Kingdom of God. But whereas I had understood this freedom to apply to myself alone as a saved person, this new idea of freedom implied that others were involved, that there was some kind of loving dynamism that took place in salvation.
This would have been simply an interesting academic exercise for me if it hadn’t been for that polar vision on the bus stop years before. I had been carrying the vision around with me since high school and it was still full of mystery. I was somehow convinced that that vision held an enormous truth, and I was determined to discover what it was. In the years after the vision happened, every time I considered it the unavoidable facts struck me: each one of us is ultimately alone, no matter who he is; and each person’s view of things is utterly unique. The challenge of free was that it seemed to fly in the face of facts: we are not ultimately alone. What could it mean?
When I thought about the vision at night, while lying by myself in the dark, it showed me its darkest, most frightening revelations: no matter how many friends we are able to gather around us, we are each going to die alone, we each must pass out of life entirely alone. And another: that each one of us has a unique view of the world and no two views are alike. It simply isn’t possible for two people to have entirely similar and compatible understandings of anything. This kind of thinking was dismal and depressing, but it was real, I felt, and it was true. I began to see that everything that entered my consciousness through my senses was unique and colored by who I was, where I had been, and what kinds of events, both planned and accidental, happened around me. I remember saying to myself, “I’m not learning history, I’m learning Nancy’s history; I’m not learning mathematics, I’m learning Nancy’s mathematics.”It would have led me to give up learning altogether if I wasn’t certain that every student — every person — who ever lived hadn’t existed in the same predicament. The possibility of real human contact seemed so bleak, so utterly preposterous.
Then I was introduced to another literary figure with a bit more information, the American poet Wallace Stevens. Wallace Stevens was a contemporary of Robert Frost, Carl Sandberg and William Carlos Williams. I remember a particular afternoon sitting in the library with a friend. I had chosen Stevens’s poetry as a term-paper topic, even though I knew almost nothing about his work. I opened my copy of his Collected Poems and began to read.
The first poem I read was the first in the book, “Earthy Anecdote.” It was short and simple, describing a scene of a cat around whom a herd of bucks were forced to run. The poem described the bucks “clattering, / . . . . . . . / in a swift, circular line / To the right, / Because of the firecat.” It was an odd, simple poem, and somehow it reminded me of my polar vision: the cat sitting still and everything else being forced to revolve around it “in a swift circular line.” I kept thumbing through the book and came to “Anecdote of the Jar.”
I placed a jar in Tennessee,
And round it was, upon a hill.
It made the slovenly wilderness
Surround that hill.
The wilderness rose up to it,
And sprawled around, no longer wild.
The jar was round upon the ground
And tall and of a port in air.
It took dominion everywhere.
The jar was gray and bare.
It did not give of bird or bush,
Like nothing else in Tennessee.
When I read that poem I sat up in my chair. This man knew what my vision was all about! The lone individual (here a jar) with the random universe around it. But to Stevens, although the individual is indeed unique and alone (“Like nothing else in Tennessee”), because it just sits there within its circular vision and can take in everything around it, everything around it is “no longer wild”; everything begins to make sense.
By this time I was making not-very-quiet exclamations in the library and my friend was threatening to leave. In the following weeks I read many more of Stevens’s poems. For a term-paper I decided to write about Stevens’s long poem, “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”That was more than twenty years ago, and I’ve forgotten whatever analysis I chose to pursue at the time. But I still recall that Stevens knew the polar vision, and he wrote about it. Stevens understood that each person is alone, each is unique and quite incapable of having more than a fragmented grasp of the world. But to each poor person, that jumbled mass of accidental things and events going on around him has a beauty, an organized, stunning beauty. There seems to be a sort of dynamic going on between the person standing there on his Pole and the world around him. He describes the Man with his Guitar:
He held the world upon his nose
And this-a-way he gave a fling.
His robes and symbols, ai-yi-yi–
And that-a-way he twirled the thing.
Sombre as fir-trees, liquid cats
Moved in the grass without a sound.
They did not know the grass went round.
Now the opposition between my insulated, isolated polar experience and the exciting truth about free with its give-and-take began to weaken a bit. We may be utterly alone, but we are inconstant intercourse with the world around us; we make sense of it; we call it “beauty.”
The theology in all this was not clear to me then. It’s still only hazy to me now. But what is clear is that my spiritual journey, which had started with a few questions in Sunday School, had taken me to Wallace Stevens’s door.
I needed to return to church. Somehow the connection between existential questions and church had been firmly planted in me. I needed to be in a fertile place where these deepest question about the most basic human condition were at home, were ordinary table-talk. And because my vision had been such a physical one, I was desperate for a way of worshipping that was physical as well as intellectual. I wanted liturgy.
In the timid way in which many American Protestants make their move to a more liturgical kind of worship, I became an Episcopalian in my last year of college. The young priest at the local church was eager to help. In the Episcopal Church everything seemed optional, which was a good way for me to take up with liturgy for the first time. You could genuflect or not, cross yourself or not; the degree of “high church” that you adopted was up to you.
It was the form of the liturgy that attracted me. The beauty of the Book of Common Prayer. It appealed to my sense of English history, the way Chaucer and Spenser and Shakespeare did. It was stately English. And the words of the prayers could in no way be twisted or blunted by the state of mind of the priest.
My polar vision had taught me that one peculiarity of the human condition was the unique and fragmented viewpoint of each individual, no matter how intelligent. Somehow, having the words of worship all written down in a Book of Prayer elevated the worship, took it out of the hands of insufficient people, gave it a universality that was more trustworthy because it was not one single viewpoint. The Prayer Book, of course, was written by people, but there was something long-lasting and proven about it.
I did not become a deeply committed Episcopalian. I graduated from college and attended graduate school for one semester. Then I ran out of money, and I went home to New Jersey and hastily got myself married to a very young man who did not understand my spiritual struggle and seemed to have no interest in the Big Questions that kept me awake at night. I was suddenly drifting, my future hopes up for grabs.
I took a secretarial job at a religious peace organization nearby, the Fellowship of Reconciliation. There I met a couple of people whose conversation soon revealed to me that the Big Questions were not just midnight snacks for neurotics. Tom Cornell and Jim Forest were the only Catholics on the staff of the mostly-Protestant FOR. They had been active all their adult lives in the social justice wing of Catholicism. Both of them had worked at the Catholic Worker with Dorothy Day. Both were close friends with people, some of them priests, whose outspoken avowal of nonviolence and readiness to go to prison had made the headlines during the Vietnam War.
Jim Forest told me about Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk and friend of his who had died in1968. Merton had been a convert to Catholicism. After entering the monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky he continued a life of writing. The body of his work, including journals, essays, and poems, is enormous. At Jim’s suggestion I read Merton’s autobiography, The Seven Storey Mountain, and it excited me. It wasn’t the string of pious platitudes I had come to expect from “Christian” autobiographies (most of the writing I had been exposed to in this genre was the evangelical Protestant variety, usually involving the sudden and miraculous conversion of a mafia thug or a Skid Row prostitute). Merton had been a bright, modern, cosmopolitan intellectual who had been hounded by the Big Questions until he had no choice but to pay very close attention to them.
I read more of Merton’s writings. What fascinated me were his explanations (in many forms — essays and poems) of one’s true identity, of who a person really is deep inside, in the center. My pondering over the polar vision kept me thinking about this very problem. If I stand on some kind of pole, with longitudinal lines emanating from me and encircling the globe, then those lines must start at some very central point within me. That which is not-me is everything outside that minute central point: my body, my clothing, my surroundings. I must have discovered the existence of my own soul. I must have realized that even when I die, when the not-me is lifeless and gone, that brilliant, living center of light will keep on living.
But what was it? Was it just some little essential version of me? I remembered turning around and around, seeing the suburban homes and the pine trees. Was everything in my life simply there by accident, for me to pick and choose from, or to swallow as gracefully as I could? Was every idea that I grabbed for to explain all this random stuff just that — a convenient idea? Was God no more than a convenient idea? And Jesus? And the whole body of Christian dogma? Could I just shrug if it bored me and turn back to my pure, solitary self?
I began to see myself as a kind of onion with layer upon layer of tissue enclosing not very much at the center. I read in Merton’s New Seeds of Contemplation:
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.
But there is no substance under the things with which I am clothed. I am hollow, and my structure of pleasures and ambitions has no foundation. I am objectified in them. But they a real destined by their very contingency to be destroyed. And when they are gone there will be nothing left of me but my own nakedness and emptiness and hollowness, to tell me that I am my own mistake.
The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God. [Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation (New York: New Directions Books, 1961), pp. 34-34.]
Merton wrote that at one’s very center is God himself, who “utters me like a word containing a partial thought of Himself.” This was a great awakening for me. In all my years as a church-going Christian, I had never thought of God as something literally “within” me. Now, with this realization, the still-unanswered questions from my childhood, the polar vision on the bus stop, and the puzzle of freedom all seemed to come together. We are not alone. We are never alone; we cannot be. And “God” is not something “out there,” something we first affirm and believe in, the product of our thought. The first act is God’s within us. God “utters us.” We are couched, cradled within his mercy.
To be free is to assent to God who is the deepest, truest, most central part of us. It is, as my Chaucer professor had told us, to be “dear to the chief,” to be loved by God and in turn freely to give one’s devotion to God. I kept thinking of the bus stop, of what it felt like to stand there and feel so central and alone. The North Pole. All lines of longitude emanating from your feet, crossing each other at one single point at your very center. And at that single point, at your very center, is where God, deep inside you, evokes life in you, generates an endless spring of love and mercy for you.
Finally I knew that what had happened to me on that bus stop was a vision indeed: it Was God’s way of showing me what it felt like to be free, to be loved and touched by grace. I knew that this experience was something I could hold up to every experience of worship I could have, that it would help guide me to a way of worshipping that was true.
I realized that most people, most of the time, don’t choose to stand at that center point. Although it’s hard to avoid being where you are physically, most people most of the time want to be elsewhere. Most people imagine that life would be better and they would be happier if only they were out there somewhere, not at the top of the world, not on this lonely North Pole. If only they were wealthier, healthier, better-looking, married to someone else, someone else’s child, living somewhere else, better-educated, more confident, more graceful, more self-assertive; if only it were yesterday, or tomorrow, or in a few years when the children are grown; if only there were a different government, or a different president, or a different social system. Then life would be wonderful; it would be Paradise; it would be “Heaven.”
For me, as a teenager and young adult, the temptations were certainly there. I had struggled with severe acne for many years. I tended to be lonely and painfully shy. My parents were classic non-communicators, unable to talk to me about problems or pain. If only, I thought. If only I were prettier. If only I were more self-confident. If only my parents were more open to me and more helpful. If only I had been born years earlier so that I wasn’t one of the Baby Boomers who were glutting the graduate schools and deflating the value of graduate degrees. The blinding truth of that bus stop experience was all the more startling because of the desperation with which I longed to be different. But, the polar vision had taught me, the Kingdom of God is here right now, within you. To wish to be elsewhere is sin; it is slavery to a false hope. There is no freedom in it.
This heady stuff came at me all at once. I tried to share it with my husband, but he didn’t seem interested and couldn’t quite understand what the big deal was all about. Realizing that Merton had been a Catholic, I began attending a local Catholic church and started an instruction class with the church’s priest. The priest was not a terribly bright teacher, and he had many of his facts wrong (especially those about Protestantism), but I was so convinced of the truth of Catholicism that I was willing to dismiss his mistakes. I was received into the Catholic Church in 1979.
What I didn’t realize at the time, and what I can see now, is that I was looking for the right way to worship. I was looking for Orthodoxy, which literally means the right way to give praise. But I didn’t know anything about Orthodoxy at the time. I had never met an Orthodox Christian, knew absolutely nothing about the Orthodox Church. I had heard of Greek and Russian Orthodoxy, but I figured these were exotic and oriental forms of Christianity that could only be appreciated by Greeks and Russians. In truth, I never gave Orthodoxy a thought.
But now I can see a fairly direct line between the polar vision on the bus stop and my entry into the Catholic church. God had arrested my attention in a startling, physical way. I wanted to meet God again in the same way, in a physical way, standing so that the things around me were organized around me, not tempting me with other flashy false centers that seemed like another, better reality. When I took Communion in the Catholic church, it was an affirmation of God’s life within me. Yes, the church said, God is really deep inside you. In his extraordinary mercy and humility and love, God takes up residence inside.
And this is how I began to learn about the Mother of God. Mary is nothing more than an historical figure in Calvinist teaching, and I was always deeply suspicious of the Catholic regard for Mary when I was a child. Yet the Mary I came to love became real to me when I realized that we are all God-bearers, but deeply, mortally flawed. Mary bore God in a profound, physical way and with perfect obedience.
I attended the local Catholic church faithfully although I found the worship a bit cloying. I went to receive Communion. This was the single link with the polar vision that I held fast to each Sunday. I tried to ignore the music, which I found distracting. It seemed like an unsuccessful attempt to be modern, relevant, to get people’s attention. The songs the choir sang from “Godspell,” and the other contemporary religious music, were jarring to me. The hymns that the jolly deacon encouraged everybody to sing were silly and embarrassing.
At this point I changed jobs, leaving the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where I had worked on the organization’s magazine staff as typesetter, to take a position in a small graphics and typesetting shop in a nearby town. Typesetting fascinated me, and I wanted to really learn the craft completely. The shop was owned by an Orthodox Jewish family. It was my first encounter with orthodoxy of any kind, and I must say that the extent of my appreciation of Orthodox Judaism had a great deal to do with my eventually becoming an Orthodox Christian. I had never met a family like this before: their religion touched and affected almost every aspect of their lives. Their fasting, their feasting, the mezuzahs fixed to the doorways throughout the shop, everything seemed to float on an undercurrent of faith, seemed to be rinsed and sweetened by faith. I made friends with the couple and they showed me their kosher kitchen, told me about Jewish holidays and beliefs. I began to yearn for that kind of faith: a serious faith that wasn’t timid about advancing into every corner of your life and laying claim to it. But I didn’t know of any sort of Christianity, except for some groups like the Amish, which did this.
So I continued to attend the Catholic church. About two years after I became a Catholic, my marriage fell apart. It died of an absence of care and respect, it died of immaturity and selfishness, of hopelessly divergent interests. There was one child from that marriage, Caitlan, a little girl then five years old. And i one of those crazy twists that life sometimes takes, in a story that a fiction-writer would never touch because it sounds so improbable, I ended up marrying my old friend Jim Forest who had first told me about Thomas Merton.
Jim was in Europe at the time, in the Netherlands, where he had been living for five years. We had been keeping up a friendly correspondence, writing about books we were reading and about our spiritual journeys. His own marriage had disintegrated. Finally at the end of 1981 we decided to marry. So on Easter Monday in 1982, Caitlan and I boarded a KLM flight to Amsterdam and we moved to Jim’s house in Alkmaar, where we have been living ever since.
It was extraordinary living with someone with whom I could pray. It hardly seemed possible, after living for so many years in a spiritually empty marriage. I was eager to begin sharing my spiritual journey with Jim and I began attending church with him. This was the start of a valiant search for a church-home in Holland, during which time we learned a great deal about the state of Christianity in western Europe.
My polar vision was tucked neatly into my heart, still as warm and alive as the day it happened. It had grown up a bit; it was incubating and maturing. It had been enriched by Thomas Merton and Catholicism and my Orthodox Jewish friends. I still regarded it as the spiritual yardstick against which I could measure my attempts at worship.
At first, I accompanied Jim to the Catholic church he attended, Pius X. It was a modern building in a new section of Alkmaar, and it was filled every Sunday with young families. The church had two large children’s choirs, one for youngsters and one for teenagers. It had an active group of lay parishioners who worked hard to make each Mass interesting and relevant to current social problems. The songbook we sang from consisted of popular melodies with Dutch texts, most of them faintly religious with a strong slant toward active social concern. The things I had become familiar with in the American Catholic Church were absent there: the holy water fonts at the church entrance were dry, there were no kneelers and no kneeling, the Host was kept in an inconspicuous side chapel, there were no confessionals and no evidence of confession. And Mass was quite different, too. Every aspect of the service was meant to encourage active concern for the Third World, the poor, guest workers, the handicapped, minorities. It was an admirable effort, but for me it had little to do with real worship and communion. The unspoken basis for the church’s direction seemed to be a belief that in order for justice to be done in the world, it had to be specifically fostered during Mass; the dark side of this was an implicit fear that a purely “religious” Mass by its very nature neglected the need for justice.
We decided to switch parishes, so we began attending a church near our house right across the canal. We went faithfully to St. Joseph’s almost two years. It was a much more traditional place, with much of the Mass still in Latin and a less experimental approach to worship. But there were no young families in the congregation, no children. It seemed to be a gathering place for older Catholics whose obligation-minded practice of Mass-attendance had been formed well before the Second Vatican Council. No one ever spoke to us. After awhile we left to continue our search.
At St. Laurence Church, another nearby parish, the Masses were more of the same, so we decided to join the choir. At least, we thought, we might feel some sense of acceptance, feel some proximity to the”action,” if we were actually closer to the altar and singing the Mass. We were clearly the youngest people in the choir, and during the choir practice coffee break we listened to the older members talk nostalgically about the “old days” when the fasts were kept and people went to confession.
I hesitate to use our limited experience of church-searching to evaluate the state of Christianity in western Europe, but I’m not encouraged by anything else I’ve seen. Last Easter we listened to a program on the BBC is which it was revealed that some 60% of Britons responding to a poll didn’t know what event Easter was supposed to be celebrating. A friend of ours, Henri Nouwen, a Dutch Catholic priest who lived and taught in the United States for many years, returned to his home in the south of the Netherlands for a family visit and went to see an old priest there who was known as a great confessor years ago. Our friend asked the old priest to hear his confession. The old priest was deeply touched and said, “You know, no one has come to me for confession in seven years.” Another friend, who lives here and is active in Pax Christi, wanted to organize a staff retreat for contemplation, recollection, and spiritual renewal. The retreat was finally planned, but the rest of the staff insisted that it be organized around “relevant topics” such as hunger and oppression in the Third World or inclusive language in the liturgy. No one wanted to come together for prayer.
In the meantime, people are suffering from a kind of spiritual anemia which cannot be touched by broad programs for social development or progressive ideology. The state of the parish Catholic church was so deeply disturbing that we didn’t really know where to turn. Our older children (Jim had three children by his former marriage who all lived nearby) had soured on church entirely. Then something happened that signaled the beginning of a new life for us: Jim had a sabbatical coming up and we decided to spend it in Jerusalem. He was asked by the Ecumenical Institute at Tantur, situated on the road between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, to teach a three-month course in peacemaking. We were able to go as a family, which meant both Caitlan, then eight years old, and our youngest child, Anne, who was less than two at the time.
It was in Jerusalem that I first encountered Orthodoxy. It was extraordinarily exotic to me at first, all those icons and incense and chanting, all those monks in black with their various kinds of headdress. I never made many inquiries into Orthodoxy while I was in Jerusalem. I just took in the outward impressions. We visited the monastery of Mar Saba in the Jordan valley where, I later learned, St. John of Damascus took refuge. I saw the hermits’ caves peppering the cliff sides in the wilderness. We were befriended by a leader from Jerusalem’s Armenian community and attended a liturgy in the beautiful, ancient Orthodox church of St. James. But I also visited many Catholic churches that were spiritually powerful places. One of my favorites was the Church of St. Anne.
At the end of our stay in Jerusalem we rented a car and drove around Galilee, visiting all the holy places around Lake Tiberias. One afternoon our route took us to Mount Tabor, the site of the Transfiguration. We drove up the steep, narrow road to the church at the top of the mountain, parked, and went inside. Like so many of the churches built on the holy sites, this one was awesome in its dimensions and decoration. But one interesting aspect of this particular church caught my attention: a round circle laid in the stonework floor in the center of the church, with an X transecting it. I went up to this circle and stood in the center of the X, and suddenly it happened again: the polar vision, the unmistakable brush with pure reality. Only this time I found myself standing not on my New Jersey bus stop but on the Pole of Poles: the place where the Lord himself had been transfigured before his disciples.
Of course, the X had been laid in the floor to indicate the place of the Transfiguration. But when I stood there myself and the whole earth fell away from me on all sides, I was able to draw some unavoidable conclusions: that as Merton had said, the very center of the human individual is God, and that we are so confused and distracted by sin that we are almost never able to be there, where we should be, where we are truly ourselves, where God is. If that were possible, we would be transfigured, too. We would shine like the sun.
Shaken, I joined the rest of the family and we left the church.
I left Israel with little more interest in Orthodoxy than when we had arrived, but among the items we carried back to Holland with us was our first icon. Jim had spotted it in one of those little shops inside the Jaffa Gate in the Old City. It was quite small, a hand-painted icon of the Mother of God with the child Jesus in her arms, and it was almost hidden amidst all the other bits of antiquity, coffee urns, and jewelry displayed in the shop window. The owner, whose bottle of Jack Daniels was already open by 10:00 a.m. and whose interest in the real value of the things in his shop was minimal, said he’d sell it to us for $100. For us $100 was a considerable amount of money, so we let the icon sit in the shop while we went back to our apartment at the Institute to think it over. It was more than just a souvenir, but what it was and why it seemed to have attached itself to us was mysterious. Finally we decided to buy it. We brought it back and set it on our apartment book-shelf. A Melkite priest we had met at the Institute examined the icon and guessed it was several centuries old and had probably been brought to Jerusalem by a 19th-century Russian pilgrim.
We brought the icon home with us and hung it over the mantle. Then we set a little oil lamp in front of it. Then we began praying together before it, using all sorts of prayers: Catholic prayers from our breviaries, Jewish prayers from a Jewish prayer-book we had picked up in Jerusalem. We set other icons around our Mother of God: a copy of the Rublev Holy Trinity, given to us by a friend as a wedding present. A tiny icon of Joachim and Anne embracing each other which we had bought from the Little Sisters of Jesus on the Via Dolorosa. There were other things that we arranged on the mantle around the oil lamp: some acorns from the Oak of Mamre in Hebron, the old Dutch family Bible that my great-grandparents had brought with them when they emigrated from Holland to America. Our “icon corner” was taking shape, and we weren’t even Orthodox yet!
But it wasn’t long. Jim, who was working as the General Secretary of the International fellowship of Reconciliation, had developed a strong interest in the Russian Orthodox Church after having visited Moscow with religious and peace movement representatives. He began working on his first book about the Russian Church and was invited to visit the USSR and begin research. He made several trips to work on the book, and each time he brought home dozens of books and stories about Orthodox fasting and prayer, about the Liturgy, about the powerful spirituality he found in Russian churches.
In the summer of 1987 I was able to accompany Jim on a two-week trip to Moscow, Smolensk, Minsk, and Brest. Finally, I was to attend a Russian Orthodox Liturgy myself. On the first Sunday we were in Moscow and, being careful to dress appropriately and cover my head, I walked with Jim up the steps of the church of Our Lady of Tikhvin. Beggars lined the outer steps, extending their hands, and parishioners carefully placed money in the outstretched palms. I felt as though I had been transplanted into a Dostoevsky novel.
We went inside. It was a small church, and there weren’t very many people there that day. An old nun dressed in black from head to foot was standing at the front of the church, attending the candles that were being placed before the icons. A young mother came in with her little girl and stood in front of us. When the little girl became restless from standing, the old nun offered her a little chair. But the child just clung to her mother’s legs and finally sat on the floor next to her. How wonderful, I thought, that children can just sit on the floor here.
Someone tapped me on the shoulder, and when I turned around the woman behind me handed me a piece of paper. Jim told me to give it to the old nun, which I did, and she in turn gave it to a deacon. Later I learned that it had prayer requests written on it for the priest to read off during the Liturgy.
I don’t remember much about the Liturgy because I didn’t understand it at all and I had no groundings. But I do recall the spiritual atmosphere in that church, the intense, serious, profound power that wrapped itself around me. There were no silly religious songs or frivolous attempts to keep the parishioners interested. There seemed to be a basic difference between this kind of worship and all the rest I had ever known: the services in the west were like religious presentations in which the clergy, with or without a “worship committee,” would put together a service with songs and readings and sermons, hoping to keep the people’s attention. It was common to walk out of a church saying, “That was a great Mass!” It was almost like entertainment, like a show. All the action was done by certain actors: the priest or minister, the choir, the readers. You sat in your place and watched. But in that Orthodox church, I felt that every person had a role to play, parishioner and priest alike. There didn’t seem to be an attempt to keep people’s attention by trying to be “relevant” or “amusing.” Once you stepped into the church you were part of a great drama, you stood and acted out your part. You kissed icons, lit candles, bowed, prostrated yourself, crossed yourself. The act of worship suddenly became comprehensible to me. That old question from my Reformed Church Sunday School, “Why do we go to church?” was answered in the Orthodox Liturgy. Because this truly was an act of worship; it was everyone involved in a drama.
There were many visits to Orthodox churches during those two weeks. During one visit I remember going into a church at a time when a Liturgy was not occurring. We walked around the interior with the member of the church council as he told us about the icons and the history of the church. Then, finding myself in the center of the church, I happened to look directly over me and saw a great icon overhead: Christ in glory, painted within a vast circle. As I stood there, trying to understand this amazing place, I was reminded of the church on the Mount of the Transfiguration. Right in the center: Christ himself. And it all clicked: this place was made for worship. I turned slowly around, as I had turned around on that sunny afternoon on the New Jersey bus stop. But instead of pine trees and suburban houses, there were icons of the saints. Some of the saints I knew, many I didn’t, but they all stood there, solemnly facing me.
I knew nothing about icons then. I didn’t know what they meant, how they fit into the Orthodox theological framework; I didn’t know the history of iconography or the stories of certain great iconographers. I didn’t know how icons are “written,” or how the icon painter has to prepare himself. All I knew was that Christ was with me as I stood there at the top of the world, and all the saints stood around me. It was not the “slovenly wilderness” that Wallace Stevens had sensed with his lonely jar on the hill. It was a universe made beautiful not by the beholder but by God, whose love carried forth in the lives of the saints had been witnessed to for centuries in the life of the church. (I learned some time later that Wallace Stevens, about whom I knew very little, had become a Catholic on his deathbed.)
The action during the Orthodox liturgy was not dependent on the charism of the minister or the priest; it was the lively witness of all the saints, of each believer standing on his particular pole, of the priest and the deacons, of all the community in prayer together.
We returned home in the summer of 1987, both of us deeply affected by our time in the Russian churches. Then in January of 1988 Jim was invited to attend the opening celebration of the Millennium of Christianity in Russia. It was to be held at the Russian Orthodox Church of St. Nicolas of Myra in Amsterdam. We both decided to go, wondering if the intense spiritual power of the churches of Russia could ever find a mirror in the spiritually impoverished west.
It was not a Liturgy, but there was music and prayers. We stood in the tiny chapel that served as the Russian Orthodox Church. It was crowded with parishioners and guests and representatives of all the Christian communities in the area. Afterward we went to the parish house for a social time, and much to our astonishment, members of the parish came up to us, greeted us, expressed interest in who we were, and invited us to return. It was the first time any Dutch church had been so kind and hospitable to us.
We decided to attend a Liturgy, which was quite an undertaking since we live about 25 miles from Amsterdam and we have no car. But the train system in Holland in superb, and we found that the trip by train and tram was quite simple.
We brought Anne with us. The older children had been so turned off by church that it was quite impossible to talk them into coming with along. (We still pray that some day they may be willing to join us.) To our astonishment and joy, the Liturgy was just as powerful and beautiful as we had found it in Russia. We decided to try to return every other week (we were still singing in the choir at our local Catholic church). But after one week back at the Catholic church, which seemed like thin soup compared to the rich feast of Orthodoxy, we realized we had to make a break. We left the Catholic church choir and began the weekly trek into Amsterdam, which we’ve been doing now for more than four years.
That was in January, 1988. On Palm Sunday Jim was received into the Orthodox Church. I needed a bit more time, but not much. I was received on Pentecost.
I am aware that it is a Protestant habit to evaluate one’s choices and experiences from a purely individual standpoint, and that I am in danger of evaluating my journey to Orthodoxy in a Protestant way. In other words, I can look at my journey as a slow working out of a unique experience which happened to me, with my “discovery” of Orthodoxy as the resolution of it all. There is the danger that I might use my own rather primitive experience to validate the Orthodox Church, to say “It feels right to me, so it must be true.”
I admit that at first this was true. The Orthodox Church felt right to me because I could lay my own experience over it and everything seemed to line up. I think the basic truth of my polar experience was that we can only see and judge everything from our own extremely limited situation, and therefore we run the risk of putting everything — even God and the church — together into the collection of things “out there” along with the pine trees and suburban houses. But somehow (and this is the mysterious part of it all) God used this experience to lead me into a new kind of understanding. Although I may stand at this dizzying height (and for me it was dizzying indeed), under the impression that everything is subject to my whim and judgment, it is God who is at the center. And I must struggle to unite myself with God who is the center of my self, and so to continue viewing the world around me.
There have been many words coming to me to describe my journey so far, but few to adequately express where I am now. I am learning to listen and to pray. I am learning what it means to worship (the old Sunday School question about the reason for going to church is no longer so obscure). I am praying for humility, for a penitential spirit, for the spirit of forgiveness. And I am overcome by the knowledge that God in his mercy has shown me his home at the center of the world.