Monday, July 15, 2013


A quarter century ago, with my family I migrated from the Episcopal Church to the Greek Orthodox Church. The denomination we left was heading for a precipice over which it seemed unable to keep itself from hurling. We did not leave it for doctrinal or disciplinary reasons; it was simply an instance of ‘the move of God’ in our lives. We have a saying: ‘when the cloud moves, we move.’

Our local parish, St Mark’s, was the higher of two ‘high church’ parishes in our town, and the liberal church administration treated us with indulgence, praising us for maintaining the ancient pomp of divine worship. Our congregation prayed for the earthly heads of the three ‘branches’ of the catholic Church: the archbishop of Canterbury, the pope of Rome, and the ecumenical patriarch.

We thought we were Catholic, even as Orthodox (in the Western sense). We were growing aware of our status as a religious ghetto in the increasingly compromised broad church, a kind of faithful remnant. If we were dissatisfied with anything, it was that—feeling cut off from the Church at large, supposedly because that Church had become irreformably corrupt. Personally, I saw no way out.

Then, one day, as we were motoring to Sunday services at St Mark’s, we were cut off from our destination by the Portland Marathon. All streets had been cordoned off. I had a bright idea. ‘Let’s go and see what the Greeks do for church!’ That was the beginning of a new odyssey for our little family of six. Our first impression when entering the Greek temple was one of profound mercy.

We skipped a Sunday, then returned to the Greek church a second time, full of hope and expectation. Had what we seen, heard and experienced been real? We felt we had for the first time encountered ‘the big Church’ where ‘the inside is bigger than the outside,’ and where brightness reigns, illuminating all goodness and obliterating all divisions. We were very tired of feeling, and being, divided.

Such was our experience of encountering Christian Orthodoxy, at a time and place where we were at exactly the right distance from it to see it clearly, and to enter it. ‘These people had a hard fight, but they have made it home to Orthodoxy,’ was what Fr Elias told the congregation the morning we were brought forward for Holy Chrismation. How did he know? But of course, he was right.

Yes, home. Home where peace reigns. The contrast between where we came from and where we now found ourselves was immense, the distance seemingly immeasurable. For the first time we saw real love between priests and people, expressed in deliberate care of the flock, and sincere support of the shepherds. I finally had a vision of the early Christian community I had read about.

Yes, this was how it was a quarter century ago in the Greek community where I live. Converts as we were, as well as non-Greek Orthodox, were welcomed in the same friendly way, made ‘one of the family.’ When I told a member of the congregation that I wished I were a Greek by heritage, he told me, ‘To be a Greek is not to be born a Greek, but to think like one.’ I never forgot that.

Orthodoxy, from orthos, ‘straight’ and dokein, ‘to think’. Yes, straight thinking, not crooked, not bent. And Hellenism, the spirit of freedom and free enquiry born centuries before it was incarnated in the God-Man Jesus Christ, but now lavishly appointed to all who desire to know the Truth, whether Greeks or non-Greeks. These were for me the twin treasures of apostolic faith I found buried in this field.

Now, years later, the landscape is different, in some ways unrecognizable. Being a historian by nature, by study I have found that the Orthodoxy and Hellenism to which I have been drawn has had its share of ups and downs. Though we entered it in a peaceful moment, along with others who like us were welcomed once, many of us would not be welcomed now. Other forces have landed and are at work.

Yes, forces. Not very much different from forces of occupation that invade and hold a victim land in war. And there is a war going on, though it is undeclared. This is how it usually is, especially in a land where there is no emperor to be swayed into persecuting by open edicts. Instead, a kind of guerilla warfare is going on. Christians forming into two camps. Yes, diabolos, the splitter, is at work.

Christ says, ‘Offer the wicked man no resistance.’ In times as these, I wonder and ask, ‘Lord, what do you mean by this? What should we do?’ Again I am brought back to the psalms, the medicine and counsel of the Lord in every circumstance. Rather than fight, He says, encourage and strengthen the brethren. The Church has not moved. Christ is among us. He is and ever shall be.

In Yahweh I take shelter.
How can you say to me, ‘Bird, fly back to your mountain:

‘See how the wicked are bending their bows
and fitting their arrows to the string,
ready to shoot the upright from the shadows.

When foundations fall to ruin, what can the virtuous do?’

Yahweh is in His holy Temple,
Yahweh whose throne is in heaven;
His eyes look down at the world,
His searching gaze scans all mankind.

The virtuous and the wicked are under Yahweh's scrutiny,
and His soul hates anyone who loves brutality.
He rains coals of fire and brimstone on the wicked,
He serves them a scorching wind to swallow down.

Yahweh is righteous, He loves virtue,
upright men will contemplate His face.
Psalm 11 Jerusalem Bible

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