[Woman Alive, August 2001]
It is strange that I would be here. I look up toward the vaulted ceiling of our little stone church and see the drifting smoke of incense. Its fragrance mingles with the drowsy honey-scent of beeswax candles. Those tips of flame illuminate ancient faces on painted icons, faces that convey a serious and heroic faith. As my husband passes in the offertory procession, chanting intercessions, the worshippers standing around me lean in to kiss the edge of his vestments, attaching private prayers to these of the assembled church. There are no pews; we stand close together, reverent as in the presence of a king, near enough to embrace each other in preparation for communion, or to catch a wandering toddler.
I see icons, smell incense, touch vestments, hear chant, and will soon join the line to receive communion. The taste of wine-soaked bread reminds me of how very near and real the Lord is to me, this Lord I rejected for so long.
Back in my college days I was pretty dismissive of Christianity — to be more accurate, I was contemptuous and hostile. Though raised in a minimally Christian home, I had rejected the faith by my early teens. I remained spiritually curious, however, and spent the following years browsing the world’ s spiritual food court, gathering tasty delights.
Eventually I settled on Hinduism. I can’t say it was a mature decision. Frankly, there weren’t a lot of Hindus attending the University of South Carolina in the 1970’s, and I chose it in part because I thought it would look really cool on me. Though I claimed I’d considered all religions impartially, the truth is that Christianity didn’t even make the lineup. I considered it an infantile and inadequate religion. I found it embarrassing, childish—probably because I associated it with my own naïve childhood. A rhetorician could have told me which logical fallacy this was, to presume that since I was immature when I was a pre-teen Christian, the faith itself was immature.
Now I stand in front of the chalice and meet Jesus’ steady gaze. I have been fasting from all food and drink since last night, and standing up in this swirl of incense and chant for almost ninety minutes. I’ m hungry and my feet ache. Yet all I want is more of him. To see the beauty of your face, Lord Christ, this is all I want.
I didn’t become a Christian because somebody with a Bible badgered me till I was worn down. I wasn’t persuaded by the logic of Christian theology or its creeds. I met Christ. This was, at the time, a big surprise, and pretty disconcerting.
On June 20, 1974, my newly-wedded husband and I took the ferry from Wales to the Irish coast and hitchhiked up to Dublin. We came upon a church and decided to go inside for a look; even declared Hindus can’t travel Europe without being exposed to some church architecture. I strolled around the dimly lit building, admiring stained glass windows and stonework.
Eventually I came upon a small side altar. Above it there was a white marble statue of Jesus with his arms held low and open, and his heart exposed on his chest, twined with thorns and springing with flames.
I can’t really explain what happened next. I was standing there looking at the statue, and then I discovered I was on my knees. I could hear an interior voice speaking to me. Not with my ears — it was more like a radio inside suddenly clicked on. The voice was both intimate and authoritative, and it filled me.
It said, "I am your life. You think that your life is your name, your personality, your history. But that is not your life. I am your life."
It went on, "Beyond that, you think that your life is the fact that you are alive, that your breath goes in and out, that energy courses in your veins. But even that is not your life. I am your life.
"I am the foundation of everything else in your life."
I stood up feeling pretty shaky. I didn’t have any doubt who the "I" was that was speaking to me, and it wasn’t someone I was eager to get to know. If someone had asked me a half-hour earlier, I would have said I was not sure the fellow had ever lived. Yet here he was, and though I didn’t know him it seemed he already knew me, from the deepest inside out.
The rest of my story takes a lifetime, but in that one explosive moment I found that Jesus was realer than anything I’ d ever encountered. It left me with a great hunger for more, so that my whole life is leaning toward him, questing for him, striving to break down the walls inside that shelter me from his gaze. I am looking for him all my life, an addict.
When we returned to the United States that fall, my husband and I both enrolled in Episcopal seminary. Though initially quite liberal in our theology, we gradually found the historic faith to be more and more authoritative; the consensus of believers over millennia had formed it, and it bore a gravity that our own puny speculations could not equal. For many happy years my husband was an Episcopal priest, and I contributed to the parish by leading bible studies and organizing social outreach.
Yet something was missing. Our Anglican faith had a glorious heritage of several hundred years — but what happened *before* that? Even as Americans we felt our true ancestral home was England — but what of Christians in other lands, beyond the bounds of western Europe? Was there more to be explored?
It never occurred to us that we could become Orthodox; we thought you had to be born into it, with Greek or Russian blood. But after my husband attended an Orthodox vespers service, he was hooked. The ancient prayers spoke of a faith that had never changed, that still reflected the first centuries of the church. Freed from recent history and geographic familiarity, we were suddenly in a faith that was truly universal and trans-cultural, and which bore distinct marks of its early roots.
Just as we had earlier given up our atheist pride to receive the pearl of great price, the Lord Jesus, we now gave up every material thing to become one with his Church. With trepidation we left our comfortable rectory, surrendered the salary, pension, and insurance coverage that made life as an Episcopal priest’ s family secure. With our three children and a handful of friends we were received into the Orthodox Church, and two weeks later my husband served his first Divine Liturgy in a makeshift worship space with a home-made altar. Holy Cross church had just begun. Now, eight years later, it is thriving.
It is strange that I would be here, an ex-agnostic, ex-Hindu, a one-time mocker of Christ. And yet his mercy is so great that he met me in that place of rebellion and brought me to see the beauty of his face. Now, in this ancient worship, I feel surrounded by the presence of believers all through time and all around the world, who saw what I see, who heard and tasted and touched as I do this morning. How I got here can’t be explained, except to say that it is a miracle. I know only one thing: I don’t want to be anywhere else.