By Maria Murray
As most people in the Soviet Union, my family was openly atheist. God was just never mentioned, although the family was loving and hard-working. When I was 6 years old however, my mother one day had a sudden urge to have me baptized, which she could not explain, especially since she herself had never been baptized. She was eventually able to do this despite hostile threats from her parents and risking my father’s career.
I was brought to a very remote country church and my parents were not allowed inside. I recall being terrified and crying not understanding why these people were putting me in the tub and pouring cold water on me in this strange place. Only as an adult reflecting back on that experience, I remember what happened next.
After the baptism, an old priest stood beside me pointing to a large icon of Christ. I had never heard of Jesus and didn’t know anything about God intellectually, but seeing that I felt small and overwhelmed by the powerful presence of God, in Whom we were taught not to believe!
It was as if not my family or my country, but here in this place that transcends everything with God’s presence was my eternal home – of course I couldn’t articulate it as a child then.
Unfortunately, that was the first and only visit to a church in my first 14 years of life. My only exposure to religion was my believing paternal grandmother who owned an old Slavonic Bible (that no one could read, and the bibles were banned by the government and not printed then) and a tiny icon, but she almost never spoke of her faith (although she told some gospel stories) until close to her death in 1991, when religion was openly allowed in Russia. I recall the first time my friend and I dared to go to a Christmas service at the church – when we got there, it was packed with people, something was different about them, many were crying, some bending down to the floor; there was a holy sense of awe in that place – when we finally got into the main part of the church, I lifted up my eyes to the high dome – it was like I was in a different world – icons of saints and biblical scenes everywhere – like they could see right through me!
By that same time, it was possible to get a Bible and my grandmother asked me to read her the gospel because she was too weak. At her funeral I only remember the endlessly sung
“Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death…”
and I felt it had something to do with all this, but I wasn’t sure what. Later, it became very acceptable to go to church to light a candle and we did this many times but never attended Divine services. At that time in my life, I was interested in philosophical writings but the Bible did not make much sense to me. Looking back, I realize that reading can actually be a distraction from God as philosophy is man’s speculations and this taught me that there are things larger than us – the faith, the church.
I came to the US in 1993 and over the years attended many places of worship – Lutheran, Baptist, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Catholic, for 2 yrs was a member of a Methodist church. All of that was interesting to me and educational, but there was always something amiss. I found an Orthodox church but it was too far so I only went a few times (and did not take communion). I married a man who disliked organized religion and did not believe in God, he found it very boring. I didn’t understand many things about the faith, and that didn’t help. For the sake of duty, I tried bring my 2 little ones to the Liturgy but because of their behavior and my lack of interest, eventually, I quit going to church. It felt great to be free on Sundays but I was also getting slowly disillusioned with life, marriage and my priorities shifted to pursuing a career in business.
In November of 2004, I came to a realization that my life was lacking real meaning and that something bigger than myself was there but I didn’t quite know what to do with it. I clearly remember that time – whenever I was outdoors at night, I would stare at the sky, as if the answer was somewhere up there, like someone was calling me. I started reading many self-help and philosophical books and I came across a statement “Take away my darkness, give me Your light”. This sentence kept ringing in my ears making me cry. I felt terribly convicted that I had always done only what I wanted and never truly followed God. The Bible suddenly became extremely relevant. I read it every night and it seemed to speak to all my sinfulness. It was embarrassing to admit that it took 28 years to start really caring why Jesus is called a “Savior”. Immediately, the thought of going to church never left me,
but I was afraid to go because it would make my husband mad. The first church service I attended after that experience was the Catholic church where his niece was baptized – everything I used to find boring and long in the Catholic church suddenly felt alive for the first time, I didn’t want to leave.
My husband and I came to a compromise that we would attend a so-called “non-denominational” church (supposedly free of religiosity – ha!) – and we found one, it was charismatic and where people loved God, did many great things and where everything was made simple and understandable. We loved the pastor – still love him. I tried to soak up everything I could find and eventually many inconsistencies started creeping up in various teachings. I was starting to see the same
recurring pattern of all daily devotionals that focus on how “I” need to be fed and how God can make “me” feel better. Specifically, we became very confused about the many takes on the doctrine of baptism, which suddenly became important to us as we were expecting our third child – the church did not baptize infants but my husband and I agreed God wanted us to baptize the baby.
I prayed that God’s will would be done in the baby’s life even if it meant going far outside my comfort zone. Around this time, our pastor announced that God was asking him to move overseas and we had no replacement. I started to feel lost watching people argue doctrine and leave. One of the examples when something “dawned” on me was a district church retreat, where they were serving communion while turning off the lights and having people first touch barbed wire wreaths. When the lights went off, this suddenly felt very foolish – surely God must have established better ways than for us to have to so desperately try to find these new ways of physically connecting with Him. We were just hungry to seek God and His will and we sincerely didn’t know where it was.
We wanted to find it objectively, without personal biases or backgrounds. We got even more books on comparing Christian denominations and church history and I could feel my mind shifting as I learned about the history of church tradition.
In February 2006 we visited my friend’s (Orthodox) church in another state – by this time I was indoctrinated into Protestantism thinking the Orthodox church “went wrong” with the traditions of men. Going in with this thought, I walked in right when they were serving communion – but something was different – I thought the Holy Spirit was there. The priest would not give me communion, and that added to the overwhelming uncomfortable feeling (looking back I am glad he didn’t – I would be taking it for my condemnation). He started the sermon by saying
“today is the Sunday of the Prodigal Son!”
As soon as he said that, I started crying and had to go out into the hallway because I was so embarrassed, it was like the sermon was for me! What a strange coincidence that we came to that church on a day when all Orthodox throughout the world celebrate the Prodigal Son! There were no seats in the narthex and it was -6F outside, so being pregnant and overwhelmed, I just sat on the floor by the front doors and cried my eyes out – I didn’t know why. There was a large sign in the narthex with a quote from the Bible about women having to wear headcoverings and that annoyed me even more. I felt like a child who is in trouble with his parents. Why are they all trying to make me Orthodox? Why do I have to follow all these ridiculous rules and rituals? Isn’t God present everywhere?
My friend gave me a bunch of books on Orthodoxy and really did not want to read them – I was mad. But I got on my knees after we got home and it was as if the Lord was showing that my pride was the reason for my refusal to read them. I promised that I would try not to follow my pride but humble myself and see what the books had to say. I started reading and it was hard, I used to fall asleep at it and I couldn’t agree with some things.
One day I read something by a Protestant author that changed my mind about where the Bible came from – he was a scholar talking about the scriptures being what they are because of the acceptance of the early church. I started thinking maybe I misunderstood the whole “traditions of men” thing – perhaps God guided the Catholic church. We still went to the charismatic church but we agreed to visit as many churches as possible and sometimes we would visit 3 different places in one weekend. Every day I was sailing further and further away from my cherished Evangelical Protestant faith until one day, when I was visiting a friend’s church, it just felt plain wrong and I wanted to run out – it wasn’t anything they said, it was like I was in a church that wasn’t the ancient church, and I was slowly drawn to the ancient faith.
We knew the choice was now between the Roman Catholic and the Orthodox churches and both made good arguments for being “the true church”. We met with a Catholic and an Orthodox priest to have someone is authority counsel us. This sifting through theological arguments was very tedious and frustrating and we came to a dead end. My husband said that there is no way to figure out logically who is right. I understood then that my brain is too little to figure this out and we can only rely on God’s help. Soon a very unexplainable thing happened – I realized naming the baby after my grandmother is no coincidence – although she died 15 years ago, she was still there, in the Church, praying for us, as heaven and earth are inseparable in Christ’s Church.
This same living Church has no time limits and so I’m also not separated from my baptism long ago. I vividly remembered knowing God was right there in the small church where I was baptized and I was the prodigal who left. I think that was the happiest day in my life – like all the puzzle pieces were snapped together to give me a clear image of God.
I wanted to tell everyone I “found” the Orthodox Church like it was a million dollars! My return to the Orthodox Church was only a beginning of a journey, but at least now I knew the path. I compare it to living on a patch of dirt your whole life and never knowing that right underneath this dirt there is a well with hidden treasures of indescribable beauty. The little cheap beads I thought to be treasures pale in the light that shined when I opened the well door into Orthodoxy. Never did my own soul seem so dark and so in need of cleaning up. This should have been obvious many years ago, after all, I used to look at this treasure, but I never had the eyes to see it. I am not trying to say that Christ is absent elsewhere, but the experience of God in other churches seemed as only some kind of preparation for the His closeness in the Orthodox Church.
One of the things that stand out in my memory is something I don’t even know if it was a dream or a vision – I can’t even remember when it actually happened, it was like outside of time – but it was me is a desolate place with dirty roads and hills and valleys, and I was holding my grandmother’s hand – she was walking to catch up with a group of people – they were all very special and walking together and there was a long long line of them, as far as one could see. I couldn’t see their faces, except for one person who looked really familiar and I really tried to catch up with – I don’t know why but I could tell it was Christ. I couldn’t see my grandmother but she was telling me we are going together with all these people. The feeling that I get from thinking about all this is the same as when I walk
into an Orthodox church – like we are all together across space and time – heaven and earth! I knew many things are not up to me to decide – He is the God of our fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, who is glorious in his saints. I knew that I really didn’t know much but just wanted to be with these people, wanted them to guide me, because they were with Jesus.
I started to realize why we do not pick and choose what we believe but RECEIVE it from the church, which is how the church has kept the deposit of faith the same for 2000 years. I realized why rejecting the church of the fathers that goes back all the way to Christ is like rejecting the fullness of experiencing God that He meant for us. I wanted to fall down and cry, asking God for forgiveness for all my self-centeredness, I just wanted to be back, willing to be “one of his hired servants”.
All the prayers and the worship of the Church constantly resonated with my experience – like we were all sharing in the same experience of the same God. I understood then why confession is called a sacrament – it was God Himself there with me melting my sins with His love, helping me change, I knew why baptism was important – it was me joining Him in His body, giving me His spirit so I could recognize Him, back when I was 6 and did not “believe” in Him!!
And finally I knew why the church always says it is the true Body and Blood of Christ – He is giving Himself to us and transforming our whole body – He is in all of us at once, I never felt such unity with people before as when we were in the church partaking of the Body and blood of Christ – it was as if I could feel their pains, their sorrows, their joys, I could feel the prayers of the saints and angels in heaven because heaven was in us – Christ Himself in Holy Communion.
Given these experiences, I knew I could just trust the Church is everything else – The Church knows much better than I do – so instead of arguing over doctrine, we ASK – what does the Church believe? – and accept it. How can we not accept it? A baby who knows his mother’s love accepts all that the mother says – so is the relationship between the faithful and the Mother Church.
When the priest says in church, “Christ is among us!” - a ritual expression – I always want to say, “yes, yes yes, I know what you mean!” Rituals are not bad in themselves, they are not dead, they are only dead if our spirituality is dead.
There are so many things that have happened since – it is like drinking from an ocean – it is never ending, the journey with God is endless, but His intimacy and His presence in His church is the essence of it. And the scripture in 1 John 1:4 comes to mind: “We write this to make our joy complete.”