Finding Your Religion
If you haven’t read yesterday’s thread in which people shared their stories about losing their religion, I highly recommend that you do. It’s so moving. Here is the thread for commenting critically on those stories. Today I invite readers who found religion to tell their stories. I will also start a side thread for the critical discussion of these stories. As with yesterday’s posts, please do not place critical commentary in the story thread. It’s only for stories.
I can add something to this. I’m not sure I have ever told this story.
It was 2005, and I was deeply mired in the slough of despond over my Catholic faith, because of the scandal. Discovering that a priest we were getting to know and like was in fact a manipulative liar who was not supposed to be in ministry until the sexual abuse accusations against him had been cleared up, and that the pastor of the parish we had begun attending knew all this and put him into informal ministry anyway — and hid it from most parishioners and his bishop! — was the final straw. My anger, fear, and utter lack of trust in the institutional Catholic Church was working like acid on me. I couldn’t go to mass without having to walk out half the time because I was so angry.
I prayed intensely, desperately for relief and direction. As a Catholic, theologically I believed that the only possible option was Orthodoxy. I read book after book, trying to compare the competing arguments for each church. They only confused me more. I had enough self-awareness to know that it was impossible for me to read these books lucidly. The cloud of darkness around me was like stinging flies. What I recall learning from all that was that the Catholic case for Roman primacy was not nearly as airtight as I had believed. I had only seriously considered the Roman claim versus Protestant claims. Orthodoxy was a new thing. The Orthodox arguments were making some headway with me, but they were far from a slam-dunk, at least with me. What they did was loosen my confidence in the solidity of the Catholic claim. Yet I was highly aware that my own mental and emotional state was inflamed by anger and distrust, such that I was not sure to what extent my deliberations could be trusted.
I prayed and prayed for clarity. One Saturday morning, I woke up from an intense dream. In the dream, I was walking down an oak alley, away from a friend’s plantation house that has always been my dream home. I was about to pass through the outer gate when something caught my eye. There was a briar patch on the inside of the fence next to the gate, and on it, a wide patch of furry white. I looked closer, and saw that it was a thick cobweb. When I pulled the cobwebs away, there was my Orthodox prayer rope, entirely unknotted by the spider. It was still an intact circle by a single thread. The vision in the dream was so shocking I woke up gasping.
To understand how shocking this is, take a look at this website that sells prayer ropes (in Russian, chotki). The knots on a chotki are very tight, impossible to untie. According to pious legend, the knots are fashioned in such a way that not even the Devil himself can untie them. Well, this spider untied them.
My first thought upon waking up was, “I’ve got to find that prayer rope.”
I had a prayer rope, in fact, one that had been given to me a few years earlier in New York by an Orthodox friend. I had been grateful for the gift, but had never prayed it. I prayed the rosary. Still, I cared for the chotki, though I hadn’t seen it in a while. I jumped out of bed and went into my office, where I found it in a drawer. I remembered how my friend had shown me how to wrap it around my wrist, and I did so. Haunted by that dream, I decided that I should find the nearest Orthodox church and go to it to pray that very day.
It was a Saturday, and I had to put in some time at the office. When I left work that afternoon, I drove over to St. Seraphim Orthodox cathedral in the Oak Lawn neighborhood of Dallas, not far from downtown, where my office was. The parking lot was empty, except for a single car. I pulled in next to it. As I got out, I saw a young man walking out of the church towards that car. I stepped to him to introduce myself, and we discovered as we extended our hands to shake that we were both wearing the same type of prayer rope. I would discover later that these were not common types. We had a laugh at that. I told him that I was not Orthodox, but wanted to go into the church to offer a prayer. He excused himself to ask the archbishop for permission, then came back to let me in.
I was dazzled by the interior of the church, which you can see here. I didn’t know what to do once I was inside. I remember going over to the left side of the nave, standing before an icon of the Blessed Mother, and asking for her prayers. Then I kneeled in the center of the nave and poured out my anguished heart to God, silently asking for help. When I finished, I turned to leave, and saw the young man sitting on a bench in the narthex, the back of the church. I thanked him for showing me the church.
“Do you know how to pray that thing?” he asked, pointing to my prayer rope.
“Not really,” I said.
“Let me show you.”
He taught me the Jesus Prayer, and taught me how you clear your mind, and focus your breathing. I thanked him for that.
“Try it,” he said, not willing to let me leave.
So I prayed ten beads, breathing as he taught me to breathe, and clearing my mind. It felt good.
“That’s something else,” I said. He smiled.
In the parking lot, he told me he was a soldier based in Fort Hood, and a fairly recent convert to Orthodoxy. He had driven nearly three hours north to go to vespers that night. His time serving in Afghanistan had been rough. He said that the government was not leveling with the American people about the war. I didn’t want to hear that back then, but it turned out he was right.
The young soldier — I forget his name — had told me that the Philokalia was good to read, so I stopped by a Borders on the way home to see if they had it. They did not have it, but they did have a book called The Mountain of Silence, by Kyriacos Markides, which is more or less a journalistic-style introduction to Orthodox spirituality. I bought the book, and devoured it. I began to pray my chotki diligently. And I began to reconnect with God.
Eventually my wife and I began attending the Divine Liturgy at St. Seraphim, with no intention of converting. We desperately needed to be in a place where we were confident that the Real Presence was in the Eucharist, even though we could not commune (Catholicism teaches that the Orthodox sacraments are valid), where the prayer and the music was beautiful, and where we could worship without the burden of all our anger, fear, and suspicion. We began to recover, slowly. We were very nervous about what was happening. Finally, my wife said one day, “I can’t go back.”
Neither could I. But I didn’t want to go forward. It seemed like a bridge too far. I thought and prayed about it more, and I simply could not solve the intellectual problem of which church had the more persuasive claim. It occurred to me one day, though, that I was being too intellectual in my approach. The faith was not a problem to be solved, but a mystery to be lived. As a Christian, the Truth was not a proposition, but a Person, Jesus Christ, and that my salvation depended on establishing a relationship with Him. Because of my own brokenness, and because of its own brokenness, I could no longer do that in the Catholic Church. If I did not leave, I was afraid I was going to lose Him entirely, and so, in turn, would my children.
The message of the spider dream was that my faith was holding together by a thread. I now saw a way back to God, through Orthodoxy.
I became Orthodox, but the day I was chrismated was a very sad day for me. It had loved being Catholic so much. It was like a failed marriage. I was so grateful to God for giving me a second chance in Orthodoxy, and I did not doubt that I had done the right thing. I still don’t. The humiliation and pain of losing my Catholic faith made a very big impression on me, though. I don’t think I will ever be healed from it fully, nor, frankly, do I think full healing is something to be desired. The truth is, I need to have that wound inside me to prevent me from giving myself over to the kind of prideful certainty I had before in my faith. And I need to never, ever be so blindly trusting in religious authority as I once was.
And I learned after getting mixed up in an ugly OCA dispute among the hierarchy and church factions, all in the pursuit of what I believed was justice, and getting burned by it, that I am not the sort of person who has any business involving himself with church politics.
It was a blessing that by becoming Orthodox, many of the things I had loved about Catholicism were restored to me. Once I no longer felt responsible for challenging the injustice the Catholic bishops and institution inflicted on victims, I could once again see all the good things about Catholicism. But they could never be mine again, not in the same way. I’m okay with that. I am a lousy evangelist for Orthodoxy, though, because I have no interest in disputation or apologetics, as I once did as a Catholic. I burned myself out on that stuff, and don’t have the fire in my belly to tell people that they’re wrong, and that they ought to believe as I believe (even if I really think they should). I am restless by nature, and need to learn how to be at rest. I am simply grateful for what God has done for me and my family by bringing us to this wonderful little church in the country, which, as it turned out, became the most important reason we came to Louisiana. All I really want to do now is to pray and worship, and learn to be a better Christian and servant to God and to my church family. That’s enough.
Remember, this thread is only for stories; go to the other thread for critical commentary on the things you read here.
UPDATE: Please don’t use this thread to proselytize or to evangelize. Just tell your story, and let it stand for itself.