Why I Became Orthodox: A Personal Story and Testimony

By Lance Goldsberry

On January 31st, 2010, one day after my 50th birthday, I was received into the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of the East at St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

My chrismation represented a 20 year journey of studying Orthodoxy.

I was raised Roman Catholic, and went to parochial school for 12 years. I am grateful for my Roman Catholic upbringing; I learned who Jesus was, I believe I knew the Christ, but I did not always follow Him in my life.

After wasting a few years in adolescence and young adulthood smoking marijuanna and living a generally aimeless life, I had a “born again” experience through the Catholic Charismatic movement. It was real in the sense that I repented of my sins and re-directed my life to Christ, and gave up drinking and drug use.

Shortly thereafter, I began attending independent charismatic churches, and left the Catholic faith. The churches I went to were very fundamentalistic. I got burned out after spending a few years in one fellowship in particular, where the leadership of untrained “elders” exercised a very authoritarian and spiritually abusive kind of authority. After a failed marraige, I tried a number of evangelical churches, but did not find a home.

I am grateful for both my Catholic upbringing and my evangelical experience. My Catholic background instilled in me a knowledge of Jesus as my Lord, God, and Savior, and of wholesome morality. My evangelical experience taught me to be Christ-centered and to have a love of the Holy Scriptures.

After having been burned out from the fundamentalist sect, I began to do some reading. In fact, I already had been reading since the mid-1980’s early Church fathers such as Polycarp of Smyrna, Ireneaos, and Ignatios of Antioch, and I was stuck by how “catholic” the earliest Christian writers after the New Testament itself were. I was especially struck by their belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. For them, the Eucharist was the very Body and Blood of Christ our God. These early Christians had liturgy, sacraments, bishops; they did not seem like the fundamentalist churches I had been attending.

In the early 1990’s I met a Greek Orthodox priest who would plant the seeds of my eventual conversion. Through a mutual friend, United Methodist Pastor Bob Stamps, I met Father Hans Jabobse. We all attended a bible study or sharing at lunch time once a week. Because Fr. Hans lived close to me, he often would give me a ride home. There was something compelling about Fr. Hans. I began asking him questions about Orthodoxy, the Eucharist, the Theotokos, and I always found his answers intriguing. He answered my questions with authority, humble but firm and certain.

I remember one day after Fr. Hans dropped me off at my home, I went upstairs and knelt by my bed, and said a Hail Mary for the first time in probably 10 years. A tear came to my eye. It was almost as if the Mother of God bent down and kissed me on the forehead.

I attended the parish he served at the time, my future parish, St. Mary’s Greek Orthodox Church. I found the liturgy very uplifting and inspiring. I thought the chant sounded beautiful.

I began to attend inquirer’s classes at St. Mary’s Orthodox Cathedral in Minneapolis (St. Alexis Toth’s Church). For some reason, shortly after starting, my interest began to wane somewhat. I found Orthodoxy too conservative, and I quit going to the classes.

In the 1990’s, I attend St. Mary’s Catholic Basilica on and off. I thought “Orthodoxy seems so similar to my Catholic faith, I might as well return to that.” At times I was devoted to my Catholic faith, and at other times, I was not. During the mid 1990’s I actually began to lose my faith altogether, and started looking into Buddhism. But I never completely lost sight of Christ. I still read the New Testament every day, even during my short inquiry into Buddhism.

My return to Christ was inspired in part by watching the movie about Dorothy Day, called Entertaining Angels. There was a scene from the movie, when she was on the cusp of her conversion, where Dorothy is in Church, and look up at a crucifix and says, “You really have a way of getting to people, don’t you?” It was a very moving scene, and I shed some tears.

Around 2000, I began attending a Byzantine Catholic Church, St. John the Baptist Byzantine Catholic Church in Minneapolis. I never completely lost my interest in the Christian East although it had waned at one time. As I re-committed my life to Christ, I began to think more about how to live out my Christian life, and how I would practice. I began to feel the hunger again for the Eastern Liturgy.

But since I was Catholic, I thought I would attend a Byzantine Catholic Church rather than an Orthodox one. I had read that the Byzantine Catholics shared the heritage of Eastern Orthodoxy, for they were Orthodox Churches that accepted union with Rome. My Church, the Byzantine Ruthenian Church, accepted union with Rome at Uzhorod in 1646.

I attended St. John’s for approximately 10 years. Overall, my experience at St. John’s was a very good one. All three priests that served our parish while I was there were very good men, very Eastern in their spirituality, and very trustworthy.

But during those years, I became increasingly Orthodox in my outlook. There are some very stark differences in Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox spirituality and teaching. I found that on all of the issues that divide the Roman Catholic Church from the Eastern Orthodox Church, I came down in every instance on the side of the Orthodox- whether the issue was Papal Primacy, the Immaculate Conception, the Filioque, Purgatory, Indulgences, and a host of other issues.

I felt by far more attracted to the mystical theology of the Eastern Church. I began to feel disenchanted with the rationalist and legal framework of the Roman Church. It is my perception that the Roman Magisterium functionally supersedes Holy Tradition in the Roman Catholic Church.

As an Eastern Catholic, I had an identity crisis. Was I an Eastern Orthodox in communion with Rome, as many of the more Orthodox Eastern Catholics like to say? Or was I a Roman Catholic with Eastern Liturgics, as some Eastern Catholics in fact seem to be?

When people would ask me about my religion, I distanced myself from Roman Catholicism, and tried to explain what an Eastern Catholic was, and that I was really an Orthodox Christian “who accepted the authority of the Pope.” But in fact, I didn’t; I began to believe, as an Eastern Catholic, that the Pope could be seen as having a primacy of love and honor, as the eldest among co-equal brother bishops, but I could not accept that he had supreme jurisdiction over the entire Church Catholic.

I aligned myself with the Melkite Greek Catholic Bishop Elias Zoghby, who proclaimed himself in duo communion with both Rome and Orthodoxy. Bishop Zoghby considered himself an Eastern Orthodox Christian, holding to everything Eastern Orthodoxy teaches, but in communion with the Bishop of Rome, according to the limits recognized by the Eastern Fathers of the first millennium. But the problem with this is obvious: how can I be in communion with the Pope of Rome, if I do not have the same view of his office as he does, and as the Roman Catholic Church requires of all her members?

I began to  be dissatisfied with certain limitations placed on the Eastern Catholic Churches in the United States, such as not having married clergy. The authentic tradition of the Eastern Church is to have married clergy, but for most of the time Eastern Catholics have been in Western Europe and in the United States, they have not been allowed to have married clergy. Although my bishop in fact was willing to ordain married men, and in fact had done so, most of our bishops were not courageous enough to do so.

I also questioned how I could belong to an autonomous Church, when Rome in fact chooses our Metropolitan? Or when Pope John Paul II in fact promulgated our Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Catholic Churches? And why in fact was there only one Code of Canon Law for the Eastern Churches, when in fact, there are 21 divergent Eastern Catholic Churches, with very different heritages and theological traditions? With the exception of the Maronites, all the Eastern Catholic Churches have an analog in the Orthodox world- there are Catholic Russians, Greeks, Copts, Ethiopians, Syro-Indians, etc.

I decided I wanted the Orthodox identity. I believe in my heart that the Orthodox Church is the true Church, the Church founded by Christ and his apostles.  I believe that Catholics and Protestants are Christians too, I am not an exclusivist in the sense of asserting that only Orthodox are Christians and go to heaven. But the Orthodox Church has preserved in purity the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). The Orthodox Church has continuity through episcopal apostolic succession with the Churches originally found by the Apostles in Asia, Africa, and Europe in the first century.

The Orthodox Church is not a monarchial Church, it is a conciliar Church. The doctrine of the Christ, His Divine-Humanity, was enunciated by the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church from years 325 A.D. to 787 A.D. The Bishops, throughout the world, came together at these councils and proclaimed the doctrine of the Church. There is no one Bishop who defines dogma for the Church, as Roman Catholics claim for the Pope.

Besides embracing with my heart everything Holy Orthodoxy teaches, I love the spirituality and aesthetics of the Orthodox Church.

For Orthodox, God is not angry, rather He is the lover of mankind. Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is not to placate a vengeful God, but to liberate us from sin and death, and to defeat our adversary, the devil. For Orthodox Christians, there is no “sinners in the hands of an angry god.”

Orthodox spirituality is apophatic; that is, we cannot know him through discursive thought. We cannot know God by our ideas about God.

One of the things that attracted me to Orthodoxy originally was its liturgy. The Russian Primary Chronicle relates the story of St. Vladimir’s emissaries who were sent out to various nations to discover the true faith. Here is what they wrote back to Vladimir after visiting the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople:

Then we went on to Greece, and the Greeks led us to the edifices where they worship their God, and we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For on earth there is no such splendour or such beauty, and we are at a loss how to describe it. We know only that God dwells there among men, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations. For we cannot forget that beauty. Every man, after tasting something sweet, is afterward unwilling to accept that which is bitter, and therefore we cannot dwell longer here.

This is how I feel about Orthodox worship. It is beautiful, it is the liturgy of heaven.

I am now a very contented Orthodox Christian. I believe that the Orthodox faith is the true faith.

“This is the Faith of the Apostles. This is the Faith of the Fathers. This is the Faith of the Orthodox. This is the Faith that has established the universe.” – from The Synodikon of Orthodoxy

H/T: An Orthodox Christian in a Postmodern World

Reprinted with permission.

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