"'I seek for truth.' Happy is he who places the accent on the last word: 'Truth.' It is far worse with those who proudly emphasize the word 'seek,' and are full of vanity because of their position among those continually tending towards truth - 'Ever learning and never attaining to the knowledge of the truth.'" (2 Tim. 3:7)
-Fr. Alexander Yelchaninov, Fragments of a Diary
A long time ago, a commenter named "Jack" wrote to me the following, on a blog concerning St. John Cassian and St. Augustine: "You're really Orthodox, you just don't know it yet." Never before had words rattled me so much - I could not get them out of my head, and kept wondering to myself, "Am I?"
I told a couple good Catholic friends of mine, and they could not understand the issue - I was Catholic, why would I let something like that bother me? And if anything true that the Orthodox said and did was actually, so to speak, property of the Catholic Church, and if we Catholics had the Eastern tradition intact with the Eastern Catholic Churches, who cared whether someone said a comment like that. I left that day at the pub in a deep state of inner turmoil.
From the beginning, I sought for truth. I forged ahead, and found the Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church was not an option because it simply was not on the map. The entire history of the Christian religion was essentially the Catholic Church until about 1500, then Protestants and Catholics fighting for the next 500 years. Orthodoxy was a footnote.
In my view, I could not understand Protestantism or Evangelicalism - if one had even the slightest knowledge of history, one would see that the Catholic Church was the original, bona fide real deal. But when I began to encounter Orthodox Christianity, my romanticized and rather simplistic view of it all became incredibly complicated. Suddenly, things weren't so simple. There was a third option on the table, one which I had never given an opportunity in my search to actually speak.
Over the past three years, I have read a lot of specifically Orthodox material, quoting it often on this blog. I immersed myself in the Triads of St. Gregory Palamas (though it took me two years to even remotely begin to understand it all), the Russian ascetics and mystics, the American Orthodox icons such as St. Herman of Alaska and Fr. Seraphim Rose, right up to the modern writings of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. My heart was captured by Orthodox spirituality. I still loved all of my writings of specifically Catholic saints and figures, especially the theologians and mystics of the Middle Ages all the way to Ven. Fulton Sheen and St. Faustina Kowalska, but Orthodox Christianity had completely caught my heart.
Through my encounters with the Orthodox saints and writings, I found that my heart was always profoundly affected. I broke down crying one time over it all. I could not gather enough wisdom in. All of this transposed on to my blog, so much so that I cannot even remember how many times people asked me if I was a Byzantine Catholic or not. But here I was, a Roman Catholic whose only real-life experience of anything like Orthodoxy was with the Ukrainian Greek Catholic parish in town.
People began to ask me if why I wasn't Orthodox, whether I had considered Eastern Catholicism seriously, and all the rest. When I found out that one of my best friends had attended an Orthodox Divine Liturgy, a friend who was the most Catholic man I knew in every way, living the Catholic life and teaching to a "T," it blew the dam open. I couldn't take the tension of being a Roman Catholic in love with Orthodox Christianity much longer. I prayed for the first time to an Orthodox saint, my favorite, St. Seraphim of Sarov (who is also seemingly much beloved by Catholics who know of him), and simply said, "If you're listening, if you're actually a saint and in heaven, show me some kind of sign."
With a spirit of great fear and trembling, after much prayer and research, I decided to simply "go and see." After all, if I didn't allow myself to satiate my curiosity, then it would claw at my heart forever. I had to, for the sake of my Catholic faith - I simply had to allow myself to see, and to hopefully see that it wasn't what I thought it was. I reasoned to myself that it was OK - after all, if no Mass is around, Catholics can go to an Orthodox church. They are viewed as "sister churches", with all the valid everything that we Catholics have, albeit in some kind of an "imperfect way."
Driving to Mass that morning, my car began to have troubles. I pulled in to the Orthodox Church which was on the way to downtown where my home parish was. At worst, I would let my car "rest" and head to the parish 12 minutes away from my house in order to fulfill my Sunday obligation afterwards. I sat in my car, wavering between leaving and going in, feeling guilty about not being at my normal parish, dreading going to the gutted parish near my house frightened of going to Hell for what I was doing. But morning prayers were beginning, so I nervously walked inside.
What greeted me was another world. Beeswax candles burning in sand, beautiful icons adorning even the entrance. An old man lighting candles motion with his eyes towards someone, and around the corner came a tall man who identified himself as the priest. He obviously could tell by my wide-eyed expression that I was "new" - asking whether I was Orthodox, I replied that I was Catholic. "Oh ok - well, welcome. Come in. We are about to have morning prayer."
His tone and demeanor were not snobbish or suspicious but warm and inviting. As though he had said nothing to me, I asked "Is it ok if I come inside?" "Yes, of course," he replied.
Now, for those of us Catholics starved in parishes that seemed anything but Catholic, it is enough to make one fall to his or her knees when entering an Orthodox Church. Icons adorned the walls, icons of the saints and fathers that seemed to glow with life. The inside of the church, though relatively new, felt so ancient that, had I walked right back out the front door, I would have expected to bump into St. John Chrysostom on the street. But all of this ancient "feel" did not seem caught in a certain period of time, nor did it seem stuck or stodgy. It was alive, living, as though the icons of the saints on the walls themselves were alive.
I nervously took a seat at the back, battling the voices in my head that told me I would be going to Hell for this. I reasoned that it was ok, for I was simply seeking to be informed, to see what an Orthodox liturgy was actually like so I could finally satiate my curiousity and put it to rest. "God forgive me if I am doing something wrong or evil," I prayed. "I am just trying to find You Lord. Help me, and be merciful to me if I am mistaken."
Only one lady was in the church with me, but the prayers, in Greek and in English, carried on as though the church was packed to the rafters. I suddenly felt, despite all of the fear at being a Catholic in an Orthodox Church, a certain deep joy in my heart. This was rapidly squashed by my fear of going to Hell for even being where I was, and my feet carried me back out the doors and on to the street. I kept telling myself as my car sputtered on its way to the parish nearest me - with all its ad-libs, crayola vestments, and unnoticed Tabernacle - "It's not fair to compare the two - just fulfill your Sunday obligation, and remember that not all parishes are like this one. Don't romanticize it."
Still, I left the Orthodox church that morning with a glow in my heart and a smile on my face, more curious and spiritually hungry than before - exactly the effect I was hoping might NOT happen.