My Search: re-written, April 2008
Though I considered myself too tough-minded to be religious, in my twenties I started to feel that religion, though in my opinion manmade, might provide a good framework an ethical and well-balanced, maybe even a tad less self-centered life. So I went shopping. Mainstream Christian churches were a hard sell: they were too restrictive, for one thing, and I felt they were too popular to be true. I also examined Christianity’s core tenets. If I were a Christian, I would be saying I believed things I found difficult to believe. Jesus was actually God? I didn’t think so. I kept looking. Theologically inclusive silent-meeting Quakers appealed to me for a while, but eventually the whole endeavor seemed too grimly earnest and politicized. I found Buddhism attractive but was too lazy to get beyond an armchair appreciation of it. New Age-y esoteric beliefs were the easiest fit, as I had only to pick and choose the tenets that I liked. For a while, that worked for me. If asked, I would have told you that all spiritual paths held Truth, that they echoed one another, and that they all led to God. However, eventually I had an experience while meditating that didn’t feel quite right, in fact felt scary, and my self-protective instincts kicked in. I decided I needed a real, time-tested religion, one that would shield me, rather than open me up to what felt like attacks from beyond.
At about this time, I happened on a book about keeping the Sabbath that I found fascinating (Keeping the Sabbath Wholly by Marva Dawn), but the Christian refererences in her beautiful Sabbath prayers annoyed me. God I could handle, I thought, but what was it with all this talk about Jesus? I resolved to track down some Jewish Sabbath prayers: there’d be no pesky Jesus in those. Simultaneously, I was doing some reading about diet. Was my near-constant roiling stomach a sign of lactose-intolerance? Reading about dairy substitutes, I discovered the Jewish practice of keeping kosher. Which piqued my interest and led me to Blu Greenberg’s book How to Run a Traditional Jewish Household. She made Modern Orthodox religious observance extremely attractive. And she was a feminist!
The more I read about Judaism, the better the fit seemed. I liked the non-exclusivity of it — from what I could tell, the official Jewish line was that righteous members of other faiths might be granted God’s favor. And Judaism had so many flavors! Some liberal Jews embraced gay rabbis, for example, while those who were more conservative had such lovely mystical traditions. And there were some groups of Jews that combined the two: a neo-hasidic mysticism and a very liberal outlook and practices! If I were Jewish, it seemed I would have a wide liberty to pick and choose my beliefs and practices. Still ornery and egotistical, this appealed to me. I felt I could be religiously Jewish and still, to a great degree, call the shots.
Most important, I liked the fact that the list of tenets a Jew must believe is short. The Jewish belief in One God is crucial, but in general Judaism puts a greater emphasis on practice than it does on belief. Perfect. I didn’t have to compromise in terms of what I thought I knew to be true, and I hoped that the emphasis on doing the right thing would make me a better person.
I was sold. I studied with an Orthodox rabbi and, after a year or so, converted to Judaism in a Traditional shul in Portland, about a forty-five minute drive from where my husband and I were living at the time.
But there was something missing. Although I know there are many good Jews, I met few I wanted to emulate. It was also difficult to be Jewish when my husband wasn’t, and I was lazy. My job required me to work one Saturday a month, and I used this and our distance from the nearest synagogue as excuses for missing services. Judaism is a more home-based religion, anyway, I told myself. I can be a solo suburban Jew. But it didn’t work out that way. I still considered myself Jewish, but I fell away from Judaism. Once again, I became more universalist in my beliefs and practices.
While surfing the Internet one day, I read about a healing retreat sponsored by Roman Catholics. It was extremely inexpensive, and I knew I could use some healing. I decided to try it. I figured it couldn’t hurt, I might learn something helpful, and what I couldn’t believe in, I would probably find amusing. I attended as a Jew and so couldn’t participate in confession and communion, but I was amazed by how powerfully healing these practices could be. Why couldn’t Jews have something like this? Because, I realized, Jewish theology just didn’t allow for God’s forgiveness of our sins as Christianity did. Hmmm. I began to feel that Christianity at least had some powerful psychological aspects.
But of course I still couldn’t believe in it. And I had the idea that most Christian churches required belief in their central tenets. The Nicene Creed, after all, begins with the words, “I believe.” How could I say I believed when I didn’t?
Around this time, I started feeling nostalgia for my childhood church and it even appeared in my dreams. Also, always a dabbler in art, I became obsessed with creating collages in the shape of an equal-armed, or Greek, cross. I felt it was the perfect symbol aesthetically, and I rationalized that it wasn’t necessarily Christian. Pre-Christian cultures used cross symbols, after all. But I began to wonder if God was trying to tell me something by putting these crosses in my brain. The more I looked around me, the more I felt that our culture, with its tolerance for ‘diversity,’ was leading us all to the edge of a moral abyss. All beliefs were not morally acceptable. Where would we draw the line?
I was desperate for hope and finally sick of myself. I’d already acknowledged that there were good and helpful aspects of Christian practice. Was it possible that Christians were onto something? I needed help, and I thought Christianity might be the answer, after all.
But first, I decided to ask God for help with the belief thing. “Okay, Big Guy,” I, ever sassy and ornery, said, “if I’m meant to be Christian, it would be very helpful to actually believe in the tenets of Christianity. I could use some help here. Now. Please.”
And it worked.
Who knew I had only to humble myself enough to ask for help?
Once God gave me belief, I knew I needed to worship Him in the company of others. I needed a church. What were my choices? Mainstream Protestant Christian churches seemed to go off in all different directions and their services just didn’t feel reverent. The Episcopal Church seemed like an option — after all, they had a lovely liturgy and they’d just ordained a gay priest. But after a while, the very theological liberalism that had attracted me became frustrating. I found myself truly believing that Christ was God, and I wanted to be in church with people with whom I shared beliefs. I began to feel that there might actually be a Truth out there to which I would need to adjust myself. Using a shopping list of my own assumptions and prejudices to find the perfect faith was just not working for me.
I had seen a poster for a talk about Orthodox Christianity (“Discover the Ancient Church”), which appealed to me, but when I called the number for information, they didn’t return my call. Roman Catholicism seemed like a good option — after all, it was traditional, its members were supposed to truly believe, and, as a bonus, it was convenient: their churches were everywhere. I wouldn’t have to travel far (I was now remarried and living about an hour from Portland). I gave it a try. It felt warm and cozy, but in a sleepwalking kind of way. I didn’t feel that confident about the local priest, either. But I was tentatively on board. I began to investigate the process of getting my first marriage annulled (without an annulment, I wouldn’t be able to take communion, and how could I be Catholic without that?).
The day before my appointment to talk with a Catholic priest about initiating an annulment (because this is such a huge deal, you can start the process before you even become Catholic), I spotted a man wearing a cross and cassock at the library where I was working. As I waited for the elevator, I stared at him. He looked up and smiled. He seemed approachable. I thought to myself, well, here’s a religious guy, maybe he can help me out somehow. So I asked, interrupting him as he scanned the bookshelves, “Uhm, what kind of a religious guy are you?”
As I said, I had heard about Orthodox Christianity, and done a bit of reading about it, but it had seemed far too exotic (those odd fellows with their unruly beards and weird hats!) and I had also learned that becoming Orthodox would mean I wouldn’t have to get my first marriage annulled in order to take communion. That had seemed like the easy way out: I didn’t want to become Orthodox because it was easier! So not only was the nearest Orthodox church much further away than the nearest Catholic church, the fact that the rules were more lax seemed telling. By this time, I was ready to bite the bullet.
But Father Theodore didn’t seem too exotic. In fact, he seemed extremely normal. He was gracious in response to my assumptions about Orthodoxy and, far from evangelizing or pressuring me, he simply encouraged me to do some more reading. I did. And the next Sunday I came to liturgy at St. John the Baptist Greek Orthodox Church near Beaverton. And, though it felt a bit odd at first (and in some ways similar to Jewish worship!), it felt unmistakably like Home. I realized later that I remembered reading about this same church when it had just started as a mission on the west side of Portland. And I’d said to myself at the time, now this is the kind of Christian I could be – that is, if I weren’t already Jewish! Later, I also realized that I’d read some of Father Theodore’s religious articles in The Oregonian years before. At the time, I’d thought to myself, wait a sec, who is this guy? He has guts! Doesn’t he realize how politically incorrect he is?
Politically incorrect or not, I now felt the Truth could be found in the Orthodox Church, and I was at last ready to try to live my life in accordance with that Truth. I was an Orthodox Christian within a year of meeting Father Theodore at the Beaverton City Library.
I don’t know why there are so many religions, and I don’t know why mine was such a long and painful search for God’s Church. I do believe God made the most of everything I learned along the way to help me recognize His Church when I finally met it.