Bios: A Journey to Orthodoxy

   I was raised in a church-going Roman Catholic family with wonderful, devout parents. A grandmother of Ukrainian descent often told me about the “Byzantine” church as a child which sparked an interest in eastern Christianity.
   It was during a 2 month stay in Jerusalem in 1977 as a college student that I was able to learn more about the rich history of the Church both from a Latin and Eastern perspective, although this journey produced more questions. Studying at the Catholic Franciscan University in Steubenville, Ohio, a church history theology class answered many questions for me. However, coming to the realization that Roman Catholic ecclesiology was not well founded nor defensible, I began discussions with both Roman Catholic priests and Orthodox priests. My question was, “I know who Christ is but what about His Church?”
   Finally in 1980 after 2 years of reading, discussions and intense soul-searching, I was convinced that the Orthodox Church is Christ’s Church as the Apostles and early church Fathers knew and envisioned her to be. I was received into the Orthodox Church at St. Mark’s parish in Bethesda, Maryland, by Fr. Basil Summer, himself a convert to Orthodoxy from the Lutheran faith. From 1982-1985, I studied at St. Vladimir’s Seminary where I had the blessing to learn from Fr. John Meyendorff, Fr. Alexander Schmenann and Fr. Thomas Hopko. I was married in 1983 and was ordained to the diaconate in 1984 by Archbishop JOB. In 1988, he ordained me to the priesthood. I have served in parishes in New England, a 3 year term as a US Navy chaplain with the Marines, and for the past 16 years at Holy Trinity parish in Springfield, Vermont as pastor.
   The theology, liturgical life and spirituality of Orthodox Catholic Christianity, are for me without question, historical and authentic Christianity, the life in the One, Holy and Catholic Church. For those seeking the fullness of following Jesus Christ, they will find His Church in the Orthodox Church, a foretaste of Paradise, the Kingdom of God which is to come.

   My journey could be described as “going the long way around the barn” as they say. I was born in a Roman Catholic household in Boston, MA although my parents were not very active in the church. I received communion at age seven but I was never confirmed.
   My mother passed away when I was young and my father re-married a non-Roman Catholic. I went through a period of being a borderline atheist. However during my first year at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst I became involved with the Navigators, an evangelical group active on college campuses.
   I left college after a year to work in Florida. The pastor at a local Baptist Church encouraged me to attend Liberty Baptist College, now Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. I graduated with a degree in Bible and a double minor in Theology and New Testament Greek. The differences in interpretation of the Bible, the irreverent atmosphere of the worship services, and a strain of anti-intellectual pietism raised questions.
   I moved back to Massachusetts to attend Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary for a semester. I met my wife and decided to start a family. In the meantime I became a member of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. It attracted me because there was a dignified liturgy, a solid theology, and a historical approach to the Bible.
   My family moved up to New Hampshire and I transferred my membership to the local Lutheran Church. But things started to change, especially liturgically. The services became more “contemporary” which reminded me of my Baptist days. I was no longer comfortable there. I began to attend a local Anglican Church though I didn’t become a member.
   I saw an invitation one day on SAPA TV to attend services at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church. I read, studied, and prayed for five years because I didn’t want to rush into anything. The beauty of the liturgy, the chanting, the Icons, the incense all pointed to Christ as King and Savior. Here was a Church that went back to the apostles. The worship service is beautiful. There is a deep theological heritage combined with a deep piety that I didn’t find in my other experiences. I knew that I was finally home.

   Born into a family where both my mother and father(and grandparents) were Orthodox we went to Church as much as we could. During the 1960's we didn't have any full time Priests but had many monk priests who came up from New York City to serve us during feasts, especially Easter. Our sister parish in Claremont, NH was in the same boat and when we didn't have services and when they did we would go over there. The services were done mostly in Slavonic. On occasion a few things were read in English. The two things I remember being done in English were the Epistle and the Creed. We finally got a full-time Priest in the early 70's and everything went the other way with all services in English and very little in Slavonic. For me, I finally began to understand what everything meant. We had Church school, I served as an Altar Boy and we traveled to many other Orthodox Churches in New England to see there was an exciting world in the life of Orthodoxy. During College years I went to the Cathedral in Boston and I already had many friends there because many of the people had come to visit us in Springfield. After school I stayed here in Springfield and have been actively involved since. What we have here has always been special. We are comparatively small but we are very active and everyone here is just like family.

   The Orthodox Church in Springfield was open when I was a child and I was brought to church every Sunday by my parents. There was one row of chairs in the back of the church for the elderly and everyone else stood. When I was young the entire service was in Russian. I was brought up with Orthodoxy as a way of life. I remember having the priest in our home for dinner on Sunday and how excited everyone was. I was taught how to act with such formal company in the house.
   The church closed when I was a teenager. I remember going to college and wanting to attend church. I will never forget the feeling that came over me when I walked into the church and heard the music and the service. I had missed this so much.
   When I was in my early twenties, the church reopened in Springfield. There weren’t enough people who could sing the Russian Language, so it was changed to English. My family attended church together again with the same love and knowledge that Orthodoxy was your center in life. I was brought up feeling a love for God that has never left me. There have been several moments in my life when the presence of God was known. I can tell you that will never leave me. It guides my life each and everyday.

   My journey to Orthodoxy was a culmination of experiences leading to finding the peace in my heart I could never attain. I grew up in a Catholic family that went to church every weekend. I attended parochial school for 8 years and loved the reverence and respect of the service. I was drawn to its tradition but the sense of personal meaning and relationship with God was missing.
   I went to a Protestant youth group in high school and found that personal relationship, but felt that the rigid ideas on social issues like what music to listen to was too pushy for me. I also didn't like the idea of prayer as an elaborate display of emotion. I stopped going, but learned from the experience the light that shines through people who have a strong faith. I met wonderful people there with an open heart to others and a thoughtfulness I had never experienced in connection with God.These were things I didn't see in Catholicism. In Catholicism faith by works could be easily seen, but the source of the charity I always felt came from being a good person, not from God shining in you and feeling compelled to do charity.
   I longed to develop my spiritual life in college and found Messiah College, a place that fostered my faith and challenged my mind. Again I met people who I could discuss faith issues, share faith journeys, and be uplifted. During this time I church hopped at different Protestant churches for a few years and found great aspects of each church. One encouraged applying Christian values to daily life and this really appealed and spoke to me, but I felt like the central beliefs didn't appeal to me in these churches, just the atmosphere and the message of the service. In my senior year I got back to my Catholic roots, even asking my mother for the canon of the Catholic church and reading sections of it, and found the reverence again, but it wasn't enough. I continuted to go to Mass even after college with my family, but felt disconnected from the service.
   It wasn't until I met my husband and started going to the Orthodox church his dad was part of that I felt my journey was coming to an end. It was familiar to me, yet hard to connect to on a personal level. When I read Mountain of Silence and the Way of the Pilgrim it all made sense. Orthodoxy combined all the pieces I was looking elsewhere for. By developing a personal relationship with God, one feels close to Him, and wants to please Him. Thereby, one's light shines forth and wants to do good works as a result of loving God. The traditions, reverence, and prayers of the service all are tools to help foster and develop one's relationship with God as well. So I was able to find the wholeness of faith I was seeking. I finally found a home for my heart.

   There were several key events that led me toward Orthodoxy. I would have to admit that they were all part of a great culmination to which the Holy Spirit guided my heart both through and to Him. In the end, all the pieces came together for me with each being dependent on the other.
   I have always followed my father's steps in terms of the search for a Christian denomination - although a wise man once told me that there are no denominations but rather "organizations." Through these various organizations, I was exposed to Lutheranism, Anglicanism and Orthodoxy. The first two gave me the foundation I needed to always put God first - in terms of not shying away from my beliefs even when it meant facing harsh criticism from others during primary school - but neither kept me on the path toward righteousness (it was a rather dark period of my life when this was particularly evident). The latter "organization" made little impression on me at the time. In hindsight I can say for certain that I had caught a glimpse of something I was not ready to understand before extreme hardships - that is, beyond those that I had experienced during my childhood.
   After the several "dark" years, I realized through the grace of God that I was lost, and I also realized I was not alone; my heart warmed up to His love. I often sat by the river looking at the nature, wondering how it would be that God would reveal His promise to me. It turns out that it would be revealed through a strange transition between darkness and light: I met a Romanian Orthodox girl at a job that I had settled for to make ends meet. For her, she was experiencing "America" and bringing home to Romania funds that we hard to otherwise get. (It is strange how what one man finds to be of no value is a treasure to another!) Anyhow, to make a long story short, it did not work out between us, but she did tell me one thing while I was denying my inevitable transition into Orthodoxy: "Mark my words, I have been praying to the Virgin Mary, and you will find Orthodoxy soon in your life." Well, she was right. The context was different in that she implied Orthodoxy would be something we could share together. But in the grand scheme of things, I did in fact meet a beautiful woman, both inside and out, whom I am now married to and who, after attending services with me, found Orthodoxy through a religious journey of her own. Our paths merged together and here I am, sharing with my father, wife and new friends something so special that truly exemplifies the work of He who only is ineffable.

    When I first stepped through the door at Holy Trinity Orthodox Church, what I new about Orthodox Christians I had read in the National Geographic. I was raised a Baptist. My grandfather had been a Baptist minister. We went to church most every Sunday at the church in Burlington, Vermont. Because I was a Baptist, I was not baptized when I was growing up.
   Our last year in college, my best friend was engaged to a girl who had grown up in Holy Trinity Orthodox Parish. I was going to be his best man. My friend’s fiancé invited me to Holy Trinity to celebrate Pascha so I could meet her friends and family. From the moment I was greeted at the door, I felt at home. My friend and his fiancé were singing in the choir, so they placed me under the tutelage of Aunt Millie. She guided me through the fifteen Old Testament readings. Being a Baptist, I was pretty comfortable with the Old Testament. But the beauty of the icons, the smell of the incense and the way the readings were chanted (sometimes with the choir singing) gave the readings a depth I had never experienced before. This was no lecture hall. It was not a debating society. It was worship with all my senses. It was all new to me, yet familiar. That afternoon was spent in quiet preparation. I remember a sense of expectation among my hosts. About 10:00 PM, we headed back to church. The midnight service was a wonder. The lighting of the candles, the procession around the church, the seemingly endless repetition of the exclamation “Christ is Risen!” each time as if it were the first with a melody that burned into my memory. The service concluded at about 2:00 AM, but the celebration did not! Out came the food and drink. Ham and kielbasa! Beer and wine! Horseradish that made my eyes water! But above all that, the joy of my new friends. It was bigger than Christmas! Jesus seemed risen and alive. Springfield could have been Cana. We partied until the sky was becoming light in the East. When I was out of gas, I went to bed. When we got up on Sunday morning, they celebrated some more! After college, I went away to law school, but I came back to Holy Trinity for Pascha when I could make it. My friend’s wife’s family, particularly his mother-in-law, Stacia, sort of adopted me. After law school, I got a job about thirty minutes north of Springfield. I started thinking about the more important things: getting baptized and getting married. I had thought of myself as being an Orthodox Christian almost from the day that I first walked through that door on Park Street. It had been five years, but I had not been able to make the jump into the baptismal pool. I thought about it more and more. Then, God sent me an angel. When I first came to Holy Trinity, I was twenty-three. Michelle was fifteen. Neither of us remember meeting that weekend although we were both there. But Jesus performed a miracle: after a couple of years, Michelle got older! She also got hard not to notice. She shared my values. One Palm Sunday, I mentioned to Stacia, that I had come to church hoping that Michelle would be home from college. The Sisterhood kicked into high gear. Before I knew it, I had Michelle’s telephone number, her address at school and “intel” that she would be at Church for Pascha the following weekend.
   I came back for Pascha and to see her. At the time, because the church social “hall” was so small, it was the custom in the church for extended families to gather in private homes for the agape meal after the midnight liturgy. Stacia had invited me to join her family at her sister’s house. Now I had been to this house a number of times and there had always been plenty of chairs, but on this occasion, they were short and I ended up sharing the piano bench with Michelle. I also got to use my “Thornton between two roses” line. The priest’s 9 year old daughter followed Michelle and I around all weekend. Having an audience cramped my style, but finally, Michelle asked me out. We went on our first date two days later. I got baptized in Stoughton Pond (cold even in late August). Apparently, Michelle was attracted by corny humor because we married 23 years ago. It was a dizzying six months, but I could feel the hand of God and the support of Holy Trinity in this momentous time in our lives. Nearly thirty years since I stumbled into Holy Trinity, it is an integral part of our life. It is where we find support in the Lord and the Parish in times of trouble, loss and hardship. It is also where we find friends and celebration in time of joy.