CONVERSIONS TO ORTHODOXY
The Gift of Orthodoxy
by Elizabeth Huestis, USA & Australia
JOURNEY TO ORTHODOXY
St. Paul speaks of being “an Apostle out of due time” in the sense that he did not know Jesus first-hand, and did not travel around with Jesus the way that the other Apostles did. Yet God chose him particularly to have a special and useful place in the Church. In the same way, converts are not natural inheritors of Orthodoxy in the same way as are those people born in traditionally Orthodox countries and cultures. But God takes us from all sorts of places, adopting us in a special way, making us a part of His Church in a way that we would have no natural inherited right to. (Someone born Greek or Serbian or Russian would normally inherit Orthodoxy.)
Because God has chosen to give us Orthodoxy outside of normal means, perhaps we tend to cherish it more and also to feel the obligation to share it with those who do not have the gift and also to help those who have inherited it to understand and appreciate it better. This becomes more true when in retrospect it is possible to see that our becoming Orthodox was not just a chance occurrence, not something that we stumbled into blindly by ourselves, but something that God planned out and manipulated starting many, many years before we had even the smallest idea anything was happening. Let me give you an example by telling a bit about what happened in my case. The part that I wrote to you before was rather the third act of the drama and the climax, but did not show all the careful and patient preparation that God did for so many years.
We had a most unusual parish priest during my teen years. He taught the high school religion class and gave us a thorough grounding in early Church history, and for a Catholic priest, gave an amazingly honest appraisal of the politics involved in creating the break between East and West. He also told us that the TRUTH was an absolute quantity which could stand any amount of searching, questioning and probing. He insisted that we should search, think, question everything. Also, he created a “model” parish.
People came from all over California to see us during Sunday Mass because the entire congregation could sing the Mass or make the responses in Latin if the Mass was being spoken instead of sung. This gave a clear sense of participation and involvement with the main worship service and pointed out clearly the position of primary importance of Holy Communion. Then, once a year, on the feast of the Ascension of our Lord, he placed an Iconostasis in the church and had the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom performed in a different language Greek, Slavonic, Syrian, Arabic and Aramaic. Some people were indifferent, some disliked it, but I positively loved the Liturgy right from the first time.
After finishing university, I had an opportunity to study abroad for a year. I wanted to go to Japan and was accepted to study there, but God intervened and I ended up in Sweden instead for a year. There I became fascinated by all the beautiful Russian icons in the museums and when an opportunity came to travel during the spring holidays, I travelled to Russia. On the way, we were taken to Vespers in a Russian Orthodox Church in Helsinki. Then, in Moscow, the leader of the tour had tried to arrange for us to go to the Pascha Liturgy. We trudged miles through the snow to get to one of the few open churches left there. It was an amazing experience.
We got there at about midnight. There were people everywhere, almost solid for about two blocks around the church. It was a real effort to make our way up to the church through this throng. Then we were confronted by mounted police guarding the area and a huge wrought – iron fence about 12 feet high. We were told that we should have had our passports with us in order to be admitted, so someone went back to the hotel to fetch them. The rest of us waited. Every so often, the gate would open and a few people, foreign visitors like ourselves, would leave.
We were fortunate that some of the students in our group could speak Russian so they talked with people standing around with and were told that the church was already full and there was no more room for anyone, that is why they were not permitted in. But one wing was reserved for foreign visitors, and that was where we waited. One girl in our group slipped in the gate as some visitors were let out. She held a rosary with a crucifix on it and gestured that she wanted to go in the church.
After much discussion by the 10 or so people who grabbed her, she was finally allowed in. I decided that if she could get in, perhaps I could too, and for some reason, I wanted very much to get into that church. There was nothing logical about it, it was a compulsion. The next time the gate opened, I slid in, and was grabbed even more roughly than my friend had been. They looked at the large silver cross that I was wearing and finally allowed me to enter. It was so beautiful. The chanting was unearthly.
We stood there for over three hours and finally about 4 am, left and made our way back to our hotel. The service was not finished but we just felt unable to keep standing anymore. Bright Monday, the “Intourist” guide collected us all after breakfast (the only day in Russia that we did not have boiled eggs for breakfast) and she told us that in Russia mistakes don’t happen, but that it was not going to be possible for us to see the factory we were scheduled to see! Instead, there was only one thing that she could arrange at such short notice, a visit to an old monastery 50 miles outside the city.
That is how we ended up at the Holy Trinity Lavra at Zagorsk. Zagorsk, the monastery established by St. Sergius and considered by many to be the holiest place in all Russia. But of course, I didn’t know that then. I only knew that it was a very beautiful, peaceful place and that the people from the town seemed extraordinarily full of faith for being in a Communist country.
A friend had picture postcards with various churches and monasteries and for some reason gave some out to the ladies standing around after the service. People seemed to materialise from everywhere and want one. In the end, she gave them all away, while the ladies stood in groups eagerly comparing and seeing which church each one had received a picture of. They seemed almost like a group of small children who had just been given lollies than ladies in their fifties and sixties. After we saw the church, a Russian lady saw that I was wearing, a cross, hurried home, and upon returning, smilingly presented me with a dark red egg.
After we returned to Sweden, my fiance and I found a small antique shop in Stockholm selling Russian icons that had been taken out of Russia by a friend of the proprietor. In this way, we acquired a beautiful 19th century icon, the “Mother of God, Joy of all who Sorrow”. We had intended the purchase as an investment to be sold when we married in order to help set up house. But somehow, we could never bring ourselves to sell it.
Much later, we were told by a Russian Orthodox friend that he knew of several cases where people had bought icons as a “piece of art” or as an investment, but after living with the icon, became Orthodox.
When we came to Australia, my husband began lecturing at the university. Years later, he had a Greek young man in one of his classes providing someone for us to talk to when Robert began to ask questions about Orthodoxy. This very serious young man was just the right person to explain things because he wanted to become a priest. Christos became the nonos (godfather) for our whole family when we became Orthodox. And even though he wanted to go to Greece to study for the priesthood, things kept happening, various papers were lost, or misplaced, red tape everywhere, so that he was able to be with us for the first year after our Chrismation.
Christos finally went to Greece, completed 3 years of study for a degree in theology and became a monk on the Holy Mountain. Last year, he became a deacon. Now he is called Fr. Theonas.
When we finally began attending the Divine Liturgy at St. George’s in spite of all the difficulties and spiritual confusion that I told you about in a previous letter, in a way it was like coming home, I remembered from my childhood the peace and beauty of the Liturgy and remembered “Kyrie Eleison” [Lord have mercy) and “Sie Kyrie” [to Thee, 0 Lord]. They stood out like bright beacons of something remembered and understood and saved as a bridge over into the fullness of Orthodoxy. Obviously, God planned everything right from the beginning, but it took about 30 years from the first experience with the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom until the final conclusion of being Orthodox.
Many people might say that these were all odd, isolated, or random happenings, but I don’t think so. Behind everything always the hand of God nudges and prods, like a Fisherman slowly and carefully gathering in His net until He has each one of us precisely where He wants us. His slow, patient, careful planning, the years of inexorable, diligent pursuit are almost terrifying in their intensity. It says something to us very clear and real about His love for us and His determination to save us in spite of ourselves. No wonder that Christ is portrayed sometimes in the West as the Hound of Heaven, relentlessly pursuing souls with the same unswerving determination displayed by a bloodhound after its prey.
The amazing thing is that there are so many of us and yet God goes to such trouble over each one on a very individual basis. What incredible value He must place on each of us to go to so much trouble on our account.