A reverent fear of God and relationship with Jesus served as the spiritual foundation in my parents’ household, and I am eternally grateful for their devotion – especially the unwavering hope of my mother. But children don’t remain in their parent’s home forever – at least that’s the usual plan – and sometimes the foundation they’d been raised on gets jack-hammered by doubts.
When it came time for me to go to college I was drawn to study people’s reasoning processes; wondering what influences how we interpret and contextualize the external world, and how we draw conclusions about an invisible, spiritual one. These musings were driven by a frustration that we, as the same human species, have developed such fractious ideologies and then built civilizations upon their dividing principles. In the religious context, I was dumbfounded as to why thousands of Christian denominations exist when they all claim Christ as their leader.
Looking back, my college thesis could’ve simply read: “Investigating how we come to know self and God.”
By 2008, I had earned degrees in Counseling Psychology and Biblical Theology from William Jessup University, a nondenominational-friendly Christian liberal arts school. Perhaps unsurprising to readers who have intently studied a subject, I found that my education offered more questions than answers. (As an aside: I’ve observed that it’s often the change in quality and depth of the questions asked that reveal growth more than the confident proclamation of newfound answers.)
As unsettling as it can be to leap from question to deeper question, this persistence does help inquisitive legs grow stronger. Yet, while college did exercise my intellectual muscles, I often found myself trapped high on proverbial ledges when my curiosity (and pride) prompted me to go places I was not equipped to explore. These explorations were spurred on by questions like:
Are Eastern spiritual disciplines and traditions relevant (or have they ever been) in Western society?
Is it possible to be like Christ in fullness of humanity and divinity? (He did tell us to be holy as he is holy, after all.)
Are religious traditions simply well-developed narratives contrived to appease humanity’s need for a belonging and purpose that transcends self?
I self-diagnosed as having an existential crisis. And, unfortunately for all those who had to live around me, this crisis would last quite a few years.
After graduation, and without a guide to lead me through my angst, I began seeking answers in a variety of places; from Buddhist and New Age texts on spirituality and higher consciousness; long stints of silence in the woods; plant medicines; and traveling as much as I could afford.
Then, in 2009, my childhood friends, Tim and Rondal Burkhard, invited me to visit an Orthodox Christian Monastery with them in Northern California. Even with a degree in Christian Theology I was ignorant to the practices (and existence) of the Eastern Orthodox Christian Church. Tim and Rondal were both converts, and Rondal was on his way to seminary at Hellenic College Holy Cross in Boston.
At the time, I remember being proud of my “openness” to explore this mystical and liturgical expression of the Christian faith. But, instead of praying at the Vespers and Matins services, I judged the process:
Why don’t they read like normal people? (Texts are often read in a drone-like monotone.)
Why are they bowing to each other? To icons? In front of candles? Isn’t this idolatry?
Why, if they are filled with the Holy Spirit’s joy, are they so glum and serious all the time?
And a more superficial jab: Why don’t they wear deodorant?
Additionally, I questioned the utilitarian worthiness of a monastic community in regard to the working out of the Gospel in our world. What good are they accomplishing by hiding themselves away in the woods? Also, I grew tired of standing for such long services, which raised another question: Do monks ever sleep?
After our two-day retreat at the Monastery of St. John I felt, strangely, at peace – though the logic side of my brain was still racing for answers. I chalked up the visit as a “valuable experience,” and then resumed my search for self and God alone. Well, that’s not entirely true. I did start reading books like the Philokalia, The Orthodox Way, The Desert Fathers, The Way of a Pilgrim and other Orthodox texts, so I did have some guides with me, though I didn’t recognize them as such at the time. Additionally, it’s my suspicion that a few Orthodox friends may have begun praying for me around this time as well.
About a year after my first encounter with Orthodoxy at the monastery, the Burkhard brothers again invited me to something Orthodox. This time it was a Lenten service at Saint Anna’s parish in Roseville, CA. Upon entering the church, and smelling the fragrant incense, my thoughts were transported back to the monastery. Memories evoked by our sense of smell is remarkable. The memories prompted me to begin asking spiritual questions again.
As the saying goes, “when the pupil is ready the teacher appears,” so after the service I was introduced to Fr. Chris Flesoras. I didn’t know at the time, but he was the teacher I needed.
During one of the many conversations we’d have over the next five years, I had asked Fr. Chris about the Orthodox Church’s relevance to modern culture. The Orthodox Church’s lack of “culturally-relevant” outreach to the Western-raised person was something that I viewed as a shortcoming in the Orthodox Church.
“The Gospel will always be relevant,” he replied.
I already believed that, and so ventured to ask, “how are Christians to show non-believers the relevance of this Gospel?”
Specifically, I wanted him to explain just how the Orthodox Church was working to present itself as a viable supplement for a Westerner’s spiritual growth. Fr. Chris’ reply led to my first awakening:
“The role of the Church isn’t to make itself relevant to people, but to make people relevant to God.”
After this discussion my perspective of the Church’s role in people’s lives fundamentally shifted. And though seemingly unrelated, but not, I felt confronted by how immensely irrelevant a life can become outside of love.
In 2013 my mother was chrismated and proceeded to engage the community at Saint Anna’s parish with a love and commitment I’d never seen from her before. Her prayers, and persistent devouring of Orthodox-related books, stimulated my interest in the traditions of the Church even more.
In September of the same year, I began a graduate program based in Chicago that tasked its students to design a year of learning within their chosen field of study – mine was focused on writing.
After a term that saw me developing a marketing campaign for a tech school, my curiosity and sense of wonder began to wane. It had been my hope to use the program to explore topics related to spirituality, culture, human psychology, etc., and work as a writer to present my learnings in the form of a book, or a series of essays. But these desires weren’t aligning with the program’s offerings. Fortunately, after many discussions, I convinced my school to allow me to retreat to a monastery for a season of reflection on monastic spiritual habits, all while documenting my experience through daily writings. And so, for three blessed months, I lived with the brotherhood at the Monastery of the Holy Archangel Michael in Cañones, New Mexico. It was during this time that all of my angst and questioning was absorbed in silence.
Within the first two days at the monastery, Fr. Silouan, the aboot, lent me a copy of his favorite book – one that he claimed would explain Orthodox Christianity in better terms than any scholarly text. It was Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s The Little Prince. I read the book again and again throughout my stay and kept circling back to the lines, “What is essential is invisible to the eye.” And, “Words are the source of most miscommunication.” It was in the desert that I began to see Orthodoxy not as a religion, but as another mode of existence.
At the monastery, I had endured, joyously, forty days of silence and Lenten fasting, celebrated my first Pascha, became a catechumen, and developed the resolve to stand for hours on end during services. During this same time, back in the world, my grandmother was chrismated at St. Anna’s and my third nephew was born. My sister and brother-in-law – both evangelical Christian – had given him the name Ephraim, which was incredibly serendipitous to me because I’d been praying St. Ephraim’s prayer all of Lent. I received this news as an exhortation that only the heart can understand. It was also at the monastery that I became acquainted with St. Porphyrios of Kafsokalivia and was introduced to the eternal community of Saints.
The peace I experienced was unlike anything I’d known before, but my prior commitment to the grad program soon had me returning to Chicago to complete my year of study.
Even in Chicago’s loud city streets the inner stillness cultivated at the monastery remained. I retained a habit of waking up before 5am and used this time to walk around Ukrainian Village and Wicker Park neighborhoods, seeking trees, so that I could listen to birds chirp before the hustle of the day began. Their chirping helped me reconnect with the Jesus Prayer and so, every time I heard or saw a bird, I’d reflexively begin praying. It’s somewhat sad to recall this time of my soul’s sensitivity because it is no longer that way. The world is very loud and it is very difficult to maintain inner stillness here.
I wondered: How does one live a life of prayer in such a busy and distracting world?
There’s no answer to this question, I suppose, but I have found a response. Whereas answers attempt to objectively state a resolution for the mind to hold and keep – something Fr. Silouan would call a “psychological security,” not faith – a response is visceral and holistic.
And so, on July 19, 2015, following in the footsteps of my mother and grandmother, I was chrismated into the Orthodox Christian Church at Saint Anna’s Church. Fr. Chris – the fielder of so many of my questions and teacher who appeared when I had become ready to listen – conducted the service. My former counselor, and inspiration for studying psychology, is now my godfather. And a host of those who prayed for me, recommended books for me to read, and invited me to services were there to celebrate.
Chrismation was my life’s response to years of questions. It marked the beginning of a new leap into mystery – a leap from an ancient foundation – where things are better understood with the heart. It was a public declaration of an entirely new mode of existence. From now on, I will strive to maintain a bias toward inner stillness, moving in the direction of hope; a direction that a community of saints has already travelled, and are traveling. Thank God, I don’t have to go at this alone.