I have been blessed with many good relationships over the years, so many people to learn from, who have inspired me, and shown me the meaning of love. I recall my first pastor, the one who shared the mysteries of the four evangelists depicted in the stained glass window in the loft of my childhood church, and how he helped direct me on my way at an early age, inspiring me through his intellect and by his rational approach to faith. There was also my high school biology teacher, who introduced me to the Bhagavad-Gita and encouraged me to pursue the spiritual life, and then there was Professor Reynolds who showed me the meaning of selfless service and sacrifice, and of course MD, who had, more than anyone else, helped me open doors of understanding into my inner life, and had shown me the way to fight the inner warfare, and how to battle through the many aspects of my selfishness, striving to become love in spirit and in truth. And the list goes on and on, with so many more wonderful people, who I have failed to mention in this story, but who played very important roles in my growth nonetheless.
Since good relationships make up the best part of life, it is no surprise to me that the very essence and nature of the Christian faith is centered on a triune God, a God of relationship: Father with Son, Son with Father, Father and Son with Holy Spirit. It is also no surprise that the essence of our life, if we are Christian, is centered on relationship with this God; that through His mercy and grace, we can participate in this relationship and also be called sons of God, and not only that but we are also described by Him as His body, His bride, His daughter, His queen, all terms of intimacy and profoundly close relationship. So many of the paths I have taken in my life were in search of this intimacy, and the depth of this kind of relationship, and yet I didn’t know the way, I didn’t understand the meaning, or sometimes I just wasn’t listening, or didn’t want to hear.
Often it came down to just wanting to do it my own way, not wanting anyone to tell me what to do, but preferring to make my own paths and find my own adventures. But even in this, I took most of these errant paths in hopes of finding love, or else by way of my journey, hoping to return with a tale to tell that would impress my friends and family, and gain their affections. All of these paths which I took were motivated, in whole or in part, by vanity and selfishness, in hopes of getting love, and thereby finding some kind of fulfillment and peace. I had heard the promise of relationship with God at a very early age but I hadn’t learned how to make that relationship real. I remember hearing, what sounded to me like an empty platitude, that “I had a friend in Jesus” but nobody I knew seemed to know how to truly develop that friendship, and no one seemed able to show me how to apply the facets of the Christian faith in order to engender a relationship with God; in a way that could go beyond mere words and become the reality of my being.
So if God is love, which He is, and I’ve heard the love of God described as a vast pool of love, with limitless depth and breadth, a pool so deep and so wide as to transcend space and time, I wanted this love, yet even so, up until finding the Orthodox faith, I still had managed to dance around the edges of this pool and not get wet. That isn’t completely true, I did get a little wet; I had throughout my life tasted drops of God’s infinite love, but I had never been submerged in it and that is what I’ve always wanted; to be drenched, completely washed over, saturated in the love of God. I wanted to be baptized in this limitless pool of love and transformed; empowered to put the dead-end paths behind me, and to dwell in The Way—the path without beginning or end.
The Orthodox faith understands Christ as the great physician, the healer of souls; and the method of healing is through the power of His Holy Spirit, and subsequent to this grace, by the following of the gospel commandments that He gave us. Holy Scripture and Holy Tradition are expressions of this truth and power of the Spirit and through these, the church, Christ’s body, has developed a method of cure which is capable of restoring each of us to what we were originally created, into the likeness of God; making us pure, light-filled, partners (amazingly) in the work of the Lord. Initiation into this great mercy is by way of the mystery of Baptism and Chrismation; in which the newly illumined, as the church calls newly baptized members, has renounced his past life of sin, and proclaims fidelity to Jesus Christ, and then receives the Holy Spirit through Chrismation, an anointing using holy oil.
Early in 2015 I was ready and very eager to take this next step. Typically, baptisms take place on Holy Saturday just prior to Pascha (Easter). But because Pascha was only a few months away, Father John, my priest and friend, decided that there wouldn’t be enough time to teach me everything required of catechumens, those being trained in the doctrines, mysteries etc. of the church prior to their baptism, in time for the coming Pascha; so he felt I should wait to be baptized until the following year, after I had more time to learn. Though I yearned to participate in the Eucharist, and another fifteen months or so of waiting seemed like a very long time, I was also very happy for the opportunity to practice patient endurance, one of the qualities of genuine Christian life which St Paul explains has great rewards, and opens the door to greater depths of faith and spiritual understanding.
For the previous year, Father John and I had been meeting almost weekly to talk about spiritual matters, theology, church history, and his specialty—Christian culture as it has been practiced historically throughout the world, and as it exists today. He is a very knowledgeable and dedicated teacher, so I was very grateful for his diligence in guiding me, and for his generosity in spending so much time with me, when he had so many other commitments and obligations. Our discussions were extremely interesting, and a highlight of each week. I called these weekly meetings, ‘The Safeway Dialogs’ because they were held in the café-like area at our local Safeway grocery store. Sometimes we sat at a table near the fireplace, so I suppose I could have called them ‘Fireside Chats’ but that name has already been used.
He and I continued these dialogs all the way through to my baptism, and in fact we still enjoy them on an occasional Saturday afternoon. Added to these discussions, I began the weekly catechumen course that he also taught. Not only is Father John diligent in his role as a teacher but he is also extremely encouraging, gentle and kind; so he is also able to teach the Orthodox faith by his example. I have always admired and taken inspiration from anyone who embodies their role in life through dedication, joy and excellence; whether it is a great parent who by their words and actions seems to have been created especially for that role, or even someone serving in a seemingly humble position, as was the case of one particular employee at a fast-food restaurant I once had the pleasure of meeting. Her task was simple and mundane, taking my order at the drive-thru window, but the manner in which she did it, with a unique joy, unfeigned gratefulness, sincere grace, and focused professionalism, left me awestruck and in a small way forever changed. In that brief moment at the drive-thru window, this young lady became my living example of true servanthood, and the standard I would keep in my mind for how to be a good servant to others, just as Christ calls us to be. Well, it is the same with Father John, were I to consider how a pastor should care for his flock, here is an excellent example of caring, generosity, encouragement, intelligence, faith and empathy. We are all examples of something to one another, how extremely important is it to be an example that uplifts and inspires others, and if at all possible helps them on their way to salvation in the Kingdom of God.
(to be continued)