About this time last year, I decided to learn about Orthodox Christianity by immersing myself in the prayers and practices of the church as much as I could without making a full conversion. It began with learning about the African saints that I wasn’t exposed to in my African-American upbringing. I spent a lot of time on the Brotherhood of St. Moses the Black‘s website and John Norman’s Ancient Christian Witness blog. Playing on Second Life, I was led to Ancient Faith Radio and indulged in a steady diet of liturgical music and very informative and inspiring podcast. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick’s “Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy” series was extremely eye-opening with his comparisons of Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant churches and doctrines. I wanted a practical guide in the prayers and fasting cycle of the church. Thus, I joined St. Philip’s Prayer Discipline of the Antiochian Archdiocese and obtained a Greek Ecclesiastical Calendar which list all of the feast, fast, and saints that are recognized on each day of the year. As my church does not have worship services on 5th Sundays, I visited and worshiped at Orthodox Churches including The Church of the Transfiguration in Charlottesville, Sts. Constantine & Helen in Newport News (Greek), St. Cyprian of Carthage in Richmond (Orthodox Church in America), and St. Basil the Great in Poquoson (Antiochian).
My Icon Corner (© John Gresham)
St. Basil has become my home away from home because all of the services are in English and it is the closest to my home in West Point and workplace in Williamsburg. I have attended a few of the Vespers and Lenten services there as well as my first Pascha (Easter). I had the pleasure of meeting and dining with Bishop Thomas Joseph there in January. Bro. Norman recommended that I meet the priest, Fr. James Purdie, and the church was on the list of Antiochian parishes suggested in the St. Philip’s Discipline. Poquoson, to put it mildly, has a reputation of not being accepting to African-Americans. St. Cyprian, by its name and iconography, would seem to be a better fit for me. But, St. Basil is multi-ethnic (mostly converts, Eastern European descendants, and a few Ethiopians) and I feel the love of Christ among the congregation (as I have felt this love with the other churches I have worshiped in also). Besides, I didn’t see so much as one Confederate flag in anyone’s yard driving to and from the church. Even if I did, that alone is no indication of one being a Klansman.
After a year’s journey into Orthodoxy, I have come to understand and deeply appreciate some things about this ancient faith. First of all, that Orthodox Christianity is a lifestyle and not just another denomination. There are prayers that have been embraced by the church for hundreds and two thousand years that have been handed down through the generations. Somewhere in a little Serbian town, a blue-eyed blond teenager offers the words of St. Macarius of Egypt, a brown-skinned hermit that lived in the desert in the 4th century. An Ethiopian can walk into a Russian Church during Great Lent and know when the prayer of St Ephrem the Syrian is offered without being able to speak the language as he knows the bowing, crossing, and prostrations that are in the order of worship. Of course Orthodoxy encourages people to pray to God from the heart with extemporaneous expressions. But, when one prays a prayer of the church fathers, there are others around the world offering the same words. This is a “touching and agreeing” that goes beyond praying for the whole world. This is prayer with the body of Christ in the world and a link between present and past generations of Christians. It is encouraging to know that the same Trisagion prayer I just offered was said by a monk on Mt. Athos in 1313 and a Syrian shop keeper 13 minutes ago.
A discipline of prayer, the Hours, has become my favorite tool for maintaining my spiritual life. I don’t have time to go through the 119th Psalm or 100 Jesus Prayers. But, I keep the prayer of Hours at my desk at work for 9am, noon, and 3pm and at my bedside if I wake up in the middle of the night. Years ago, I heard a Baptist deacon suggest that we keep “short sin accounts.” When we sin, we must not let too much time accumulate before we repent. Keeping the Hours, even with brief prayers, is extremely helpful in spiritual warfare. Knowing that monks, nuns, and other Orthodox believers are doing the same thing makes the prayers more powerful. The whole body of the church is lifting up the name of Jesus at the same times.
Fasting is another portion of the Orthodox lifestyle that has become a part of me. Refraining from meats, dairy, fish with backbones on Wednesdays, Fridays, and according to certain periods of the year is a healthier approach to life than eating whatever, whenever, and how much one chooses. Wednesday is the commemoration of the betrayal of Christ and Friday the crucifixion. This is a great weekly practice to keep the suffering of our Lord in our minds during the week. There is nothing wrong with these foods and they are to be eaten during fast-free periods as well. But, as an Orthodox Christian, you practice the wisdom of setting aside some pleasures and delights of this world to focus on the world beyond. No, the bishops and priest do not send policemen to force believers to fast. But, understanding the purpose of the practice makes fasting more of an invitation than a threat.
Unholy images, such as graphic violence and pornography, are among Satan’s greatest weapons to distract us from God. In Orthodox Christianity, icons (holy images) are used to keep our focus on worship in the church and in our home icon corners. The icons are not artistically accurate and are painted (or written) in a way to highlight Christian doctrine. They are not to be worshiped as God. But, as the gold-hammered cherubim on the Mercy Seat and cherubim woven into the fabric of the temple in the Book of Exodus, icons represent the presence of Christ, Mary, and the saints and are to be honored as such. Having icons to pray with has been a blessing to me. Incense, which symbolizes the prayers of the people being lifted up to heaven is another great tool in public and personal worship. Sight, sound, touch, hearing, and taste are all a part of the Orthodox daily life.
The stories of the numerous saints and martyrs are very inspiring. Who knew the woman at the well and the centurion at the crucifixion had names and helped to spread the Gospel? And how odd is it that during Black History Month, we African-Americans will have pictures of Malcolm X in our churches and not one icon of the Egyptian Bishop who compiled the list of books that would be accepted as the New Testament? Instead of buying the newest book from some “flavor of the month” bishop about “going to the next level,” Orthodoxy offers a rich foundation of ancient wisdom from the Desert Fathers to the new martyrs of the Soviet persecutions.
I admit, my first visits to a Divine Liturgy were confusing. Greek words, no soul-stirring Gospel music, the sermon lasting about 10-minutes, I can’t have communion, all the standing (St. Cyprian has no pews and a few chairs), bowing, crossing (prostrations during Lent), incense, Mary the Theo-what, and kiss the preacher’s hand? It is no wonder that most dyed-in-the-wool Protestants and nominal Christians would quickly reject Orthodoxy as pagan idolatry and detestable to any real “Bible-believeing” Christian.
But, the 4th century bishops of the Orthodox Church selected the books of the Bible. If I can trust their judgement in the Holy Scriptures, who am I to doubt a worship that is just as old? After participating in the services a few more times, I understood what was going on and why things were done. I can go into a Greek church and keep up. I love going to an Orthodox Divine Liturgy. It is worship that is in line with the scriptures, 2,000 years of tradition, and symbolically connects earth to heaven.
This and next year, I do not anticipate leaving the Baptist Church and Converting to Orthodoxy. On a practical level, I can’t afford to leave the pulpit and my wife is not that enthusiastic about a church that has no women clergy. Spiritually, there are elements of the black church that still have tremendous value to me. The preaching of Gardner Taylor, Howard Thurman‘s wisdom, the strength of the Negro Spirituals to Thomas Dorsey and the Staple Singers; I don’t think it is good for me to turn my back on such a legacy.
Yet, many of those who claim to inherit this legacy are doing just that. I see too many ministers and ministries chasing after the newest and “most relevant” styles of trying to attract “paying customers” rather than standing firmly on the shoulders of the giants of our churches. Rather than a refuge for our sin-sick souls, there is a tendency for too many of our churches to praise our way to some “next level” without knowing and walking on the firm foundation the older generations set before us. This is a bad trend.
So, I will use my time wisely to read and study more about the ancient faith. I will continue the practices of prayer, fasting, and attend the Divine Liturgies and other services when I can. I will also gain strength from the faith of my father’s and grandfather’s generations. My time to convert will come. May I do so in grace, wisdom, mercy, and love.