The first time I encountered Orthodoxy beyond a passing reference in an encyclopedia was in the middle years of the 1970’s when a slightly older cousin of mine decided to marry. Her beloved was a young man from Greece who would not marry unless she first convert from her native faith (Southern Baptist) to his (Greek Orthodox). That struck me as a bit unsporting. While I could see the reasonableness of those marrying having the same or at least a very similar faith, it just didn’t seem fair that it was she who had to convert or the whole thing would be off. Why couldn’t he become Baptist…after all it had to be closer to the New Testament Church than the Greek Orthodox…the Orthodox had priests, and prayed to saints, and were full of what I characterized as dead ritual and formalism (I’d read my Bunyan). But no one was asking me my opinion.
So they got married. It was a bit different than anything I’d been in before…but since marriages were formal affairs as a rule anyway, a lot of it just went by me without a lick of comprehension. I did appreciate however when the priest, Fr. Paul, stopped to explain a tidbit about the history of one part or the ritual or another.
At this point three books entered my life. My cousin’s marriage had made me curious about this off brand eastern Catholocism she had gotten herself into. She said there was a lot that was similar. Orthodox believed in the Holy Trinity and they baptized by immersion….a point in their favor…but they baptized infants…so there was room for improvement in my view. I asked her if she had any books on this new faith and she let me borrow two that had been given to her in preparation for the marriage.
The first was “The Orthodox Church” by Timothy (now Bishop Kalistos) Ware. It was a history of the Orthodox Church and an outline of its faith. The second was about the coming rein of the Antichrist and it was written by a monk named Fr. Seraphim Rose.
Seldom have two works about the same faith been so different in tone and impact. I really liked the book by Ware. There was one point made somewhere therein that stuck with me until the day I entered Orthodoxy decades later. It was from a place where he was discussing the Orthodox practice of praying to saints. He said that death did not have the power to sunder the Body of Christ, which is His Church. I had never thought of it that way, and did not have a ready argument to counter it.
The second book made me nuts was it was largely a detailed critique of the New Age and Charismatic movements (which it basically lumped together). It made exclusive claims for the Orthodox Church I could not consent to. It seemed angry in tone in places…arrogant and dismissive in others…and it made me see red. The author laid out all sorts of things he saw as problems and made predictions about where it was all likely to end up. His basic argument was that the Charismatic movement was a work of the devil masquerading as a work of God…a relativizing force that would sacrifice truth for “getting along” and for “special feelings”. He thought effectively mediumistic, a Christian flavored shamanism. He further stated that this movement’s hidden purpose was to pave the way for the religion of the Antichrist when he came.
I was incensed at his opinion, being a young new and very devote Charismatic….I had never witnessed such a combination of ignorance and arrogance in my life.
The third book was an old photojournal in the library of the University of Southern Mississippi that I came across by accident one day while just grazing the shelves to see what I could find. It was full of photos of Mt. Athos, the Orthodox monastic republic on one of the peninsulas of Thessolonica, Greece. It was over 1000 years old and I marveled at the images of the old buildings, ancient foot paths, and of this extended community of men who lived very simply and dedicated their lives to prayer. Even if their religion had issues in my book, I could not fault their earnest dedication. I loved them instantly and thought how wonderful it would be to walk trails and paths that really faithful Christians had trodden for a 1000 years…if rocks could talk….man, if they could ever “get the Holy Ghost” what a revival it would be.
I didn’t know it then, but the seeds were planted…they sprouted covertly…like bamboo–in a network of runners that grew out of sight to spring up en-masse several years later. The only little twig that showed above the soil was Bishop Ware’s assertion that death could not sunder the Body of Christ…and by implication could not sever the communion of its members with each other. It didn’t fit the rest of what I believed though I could not deny its force, dare I say it’s truth…but being occupied with other things I didn’t think about it much. It’s net initial effect was to maintain one tender spot in me regarding that odd foreign bunch of ostensible Christians who called themselves “Orthodox.”