Posted by: Shawn Ragan | August 1, 2008

Fr. Mark Visits

For several months now, my ten year old son has been asking a question.  “When?”

As I have mentioned several times in these posts, my children have moved much faster in their journey to the historic Christian Faith than either my wife or myself.  I have not been too far behind them, but I have been behind them in many ways.  The children have seen things and known things – rather intuitively – where I had to challenge over three decades of Western Protestant thinking.  Needless to say, I have had many more hurdles to jump because of that.

My wife, who did not grow up in a Christian family (Western or otherwise), has had her own unique challenges.  Being a pastor’s wife almost killed her spiritually, and it has been answer to prayer and the love of our priest, Fr. Mark and his wife, Mat. Michelle that has helped her even be able to attend church.  The love and humility she has seen in them and that they have shown to her has helped her to heal some.  She still has a ways to go, but I am thankful for the progress she has made.

My two boys recently went to St. Mary of Egypt Camp in northern Idaho.  There, they spent a week living the Orthodox life, complete with morning and evening prayers and Orthros and Vespers each day (plus a Divine Liturgy in the middle of the week), as well as two fasting days.  To a non-Orthodox, this may sound almost burdensome for a child, but it is not.  My kids loved it and are already looking forward to next year (they did have all sorts of activities each day as well).

Services and prayer – these things are different in Orthodoxy.  I have read and experienced (and blogged about in previous posts) the interesting dynamic of Orthodox prayer and services.  While in my previous church experiences, a 1 1/2 hour church service was something to complain about.  After all, how could one expect someone to sit there for all that time?  In Orthodoxy, though, often one stands for hours ( a service can last anywhere from one hour to four hours, at least the ones we have experienced), and at the end of it the comment is more like “It’s over already.”  During Holy Week there must be over 30 hours of services leading up to Pascha (the all-night Vigil on Holy Friday, if I recall, began immediately following the Lamentations service and the church celebrated a Divine Liturgy Saturday/Sabbath morning – that alone must have been 18 hours straight of services in the Church).

My boys came home from camp, having loved it.  Shortly afterwards, again my ten-year old came to my wife and I: “When?” he asked.  “When can I become Orthodox?”

Under the counsel of our spiritual fathers, we have decided to wait and enter the Church together, as a family.  Pragmatically, this means waiting for my wife.  Hieromonk Mark has long encouraged me to take this time to “crucify my self-will.”  I may have my schedules and when I want things done, but, he said, this is an opportunity to love my wife and die to self.  We have all been impressed on the lack of “high-pressure salesmanship” in our journey.  We are always invited, and we are always welcomed, and we are always loved, but there is no push that we have to become Orthodox now.  Just the opposite, we have been encouraged to take it slowly and to wait upon one another.

This comes, I think, from the different approach ancient Christianity has from Western Christendom.  In the West, a more contractual or legal nature of salvation developed.  In this view, there is more pressure I think to “get people saved.”  By this I mean that there is great emphasis just to get people to respond to an altar call or to say the “Sinner’s Prayer.”  Once that has been done, according to many, the contract has been signed and the real work is done.

Orthodoxy sees things from a more relational way.  And, just as St. Paul compared the relationship between husband and wife to that of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5), so one sees that in their journey into Orthodoxy.  One does not force or push their wife into loving them.  In fact, for love to really be the fullness of love, it must be freely given.  I think this is one of the reasons why God does not interfere with our free will.  If our love to him is forced, then is it really love?  You can not pressure someone to love you – all you can do is love them.

When someone wants to know about Orthodoxy, especially in America, the first place one goes to is often the internet (which is probably the last place one should go).  Some friends of my mom went online to learn about this “new” Christian faith she was looking at.  What they got from the internet was very different from what was real.  My mom simply commented, “That hasn’t been my experience.”

If I want to get to know you, would you recommend I read you autobiography?  Or maybe some articles written about you, some of which were written by people who either do not know you themselves or they are your enemies?  Would that be the best way to get to know you?  Or would it be better to sit down and meet over a cup of coffee?  This is why one will hear that if you want to know about this historic Faith, go to a service.  Meet the Church.

This relational approach also reflects how one becomes Orthodox.  After meeting the Church, some will want to pursue, others will run away – quickly 🙂 .  If we want to get to know more, we enter into a period that could be compared to dating.  Those who do this are called “Inquirers.”  This is where my family and I are at.  Once someone has dated for a while, and they are interested in pursuing the relationship on a more committed level, they become engaged.  In the Church, this is the entrance in the to Catechumenate.  As a Catechumen, one is, in a sense, engaged.

We do not encourage people to date for a couple of days then skip the engagement and go off and elope.  We do not send our kids off to a single’s camp for a week and then hope they are married when they get home.  Hopefully we understand the seriousness of marriage, and we encourage our children to enter into it slowly – even if we are sure it’s the right person for them.  As a pastor, I wanted to see people go through premarital counseling, and most recognize the importance of something like that.  The period of engagement is not a time just to let parents get the proper loans to pay for the wedding, it should be a time of learning and preparation.  So it is in the Church.  During this period of engagement, one learns about the Christian Faith and shares, as much as is possible for one who is engaged rather than married, in the life of the Church.  Then, when one is ready, the wedding takes place.  This is baptism.  And, just like a wedding marks the beginning of one’s married life and journey into oneness, so baptism marks the beginning of one’s journey into communion and oneness with God.

All three of our children, my ten year old in particular, have been anxious for the next step of our journey.  The boys came home from camp hungering for something more, and Brendan asked us one night last week “Can’t I at least become a catechumen?”

Last night Fr. Mark, our parish priest, came to visit.  His humble love has been a light to Tori, and the kids all look to him as their pastor, their priest, and their spiritual father.  In that role, Fr. Mark came over to talk to Brendan last night (and to spend a couple hours playing Lego Star Wars on the PS2 with our nine year old).  Brendan was able ask him several questions and he was very happy with the time he got to visit.

Afterwards, Fr. Mark was able to visit with Tori and I about his conversation with Brendan.  He commented that Brendan was “very serious about his faith.”  As expected, he told him he should wait for his family to enter the church (through baptism or chrismation), but he did tell my wife and I it was up to us if we wanted to let Brendan become a catechumen.  Of course, at that point the other two kids would be right there with him.

For the time being, we want to lovingly and patiently wait for Tori to be ready.  Most of the steps she took in her Christian walk up until she met the Orthodoxy has been pressure.  She was pressured to go on the altar call, she was pressured into baptism, and she was pressured to be a pastor’s wife.  I have to admit I was the one applying a lot of the pressure.  The kids have the opportunity, as do I, to slow down for her, and to show her love.  And throughout it all, that is really what Orthodoxy is all about.

“For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'”

-The Epistle of St. Paul to the Galatians, chapter 5, verses 13-14

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Responses

  1. Shawn (and family) – I am the wife of an Orthodox priest in the Antiochian Archdiocese, in fact our parish of St. Luke in Garden Grove, CA is about 45 minutes away from Fr. Patrick O’Grady’s parish. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him and his wife (I’m a Jersey girl, myself). I’ve enjoyed reading your blog about you and your family’s journey. My husband is a convert; I tease him about getting his “25 year pin” this past Pascha! I and my family have been Orthodox since at least 1763 (that’s as far as I’ve been able to trace my family tree on my dad’s side). I must admit that coming from a small town in NJ, where everybody is from the Ukrain, Russia or Poland, the “Protestant/Evangelical” branch of Christianity is foreign to me. In our town you were either Orthodox or Polish/Ukrainian catholic. When I get together with the majority of our friends and also with other clergy wives, I kind of feel like the “odd-man out” because I really have no clue about where they’re coming from. All I know is that by reading about yours and others journeys – I find myself continuingly trying to “renew my baptismal garment”. May God continue to send His blessings upon all of you. Through the prayers of His Holy Mother, whose falling-asleep we are preparing to celebrate. Peace, Kyra

  2. I Corinthians 11:33 “So my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another…” It is yanked out of context, but it is wise counsel: wait for those you love. “Lead, follow, or get out of the way” isn’t in the Scriptures, only in Church bulletins. If your wife is not healed, the entire family is infirm. God bless you all, Fr. Mark is wise.

  3. Great, Shawn. You have the right attitude!
    Believe me, you will be glad you waited for Tori. She is a very important element in the future spiritual growth of your family as a whole. Once she fulfills her season of needed adjustment, the door will open.
    I look forward to seeing you soon.
    Fr Patrick

  4. As I, myself, am a wife who is being waited for. I appreciate the attitude that you are showing toward your wife. She is blessed to have a loving family and a wise and loving priest. (I am blessed as well.)

    I get a little anxious that I am holding my family back from the full blessing of communion, but I know that this is a very serious decision for me. I have a lot of teachings in my head that are opposite to what I am hearing and learning in the Orthodox Church. There seems to be a battle waging in my head and in my heart. I think you may know a little what I mean by that. I pray that your wife and your family (as well as myself and my family) will come to know in our spirits’ what is true and good and worthy of giving our whole selves to. May God move us to understanding.

    In Him who IS the Way, the Truth, and the Life,
    Debbie Zahariades


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