How I almost didn’t become Orthodox – Or, How St. Augustine saved my faith from perdition – My Journey to Orthodoxy, Part 1

by Scott D. Hendricks

According to my TimeHop, today marks the sixth anniversary of this Facebook photo of my reception into the catechumenate of the Orthodox Church. In the Orthodox Church, (which is the ancient church of the Eastern Roman Empire and also of the Slavic peoples), one must first join the ranks of those being instructed in the faith – catechumens – before one is eligible to be baptized or chrismated.

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Chrismation, or anointing with holy chrism, is the sacrament that follows baptism and is widely used to receive Christians of other churches who have been baptized with the Trinitarian formula. Whereas baptism is one’s personal Easter Triduum, chrismation is one’s personal Pentecost, in which the baptized person receives the grace of the Holy Spirit. I was chrismated on Pentecost of 2011, but not before at least 5-6 months of being a catechumen and not a few years of being an inquirer into the Orthodox Faith.

Whereas in some ways it might make the most sense to start describing my journey from the very beginning, I would rather today tell you about how I nearly lost my faith in Orthodoxy right before I was scheduled to be received by chrismation on Easter, 2011.

I was proceeding along my period of instruction as a catechumen fairly steadily, with very few bumps in the road. I was reading the prescribed reading, attending catechism classes with my priest, and diligently attending the services of the church (as I had been for over one year by then). As it was not uncommon for me to pick up some extra reading from the church library, I did so innocently, and I had chosen to read two books, the first being Introduction to Liturgical Theology, which is the published dissertation of Fr. Alexander Schmemann.

Now the copy I had in my hands had as its great disadvantage a complete absence of footnotes. Can you imagine reading a dissertation without citations? I found Fr. Schmemann making many unsubstantiated assertions in this study about certain steadfast features of Orthodox liturgical worship. In particular, at one point he attempted to make the case that once the church reached the peace of Constantine, it became common for bishops to be followed with incense and candlelight, in imitation of the Roman court. For reasons still unbeknownst to me, at the time this assertion was more than a harmless historical argument; it shook my faith and caused me to doubt the cultural relevance of Orthodoxy. The thought entered my mind, “If incense and candlelight were somehow culturally relevant to the people of the Roman empire at the time, then perhaps Orthodoxy has immortalized a temporary, cultural practice. Does that mean the church should attempt to make sense culturally wherever it finds itself?”

It might strike one as very odd that, as someone converting to the ancient Christian faith in Orthodoxy, I was concerned momentarily about cultural relevance. To be completely honest I don’t really know what came over me. I had been attending liturgical churches for a number of years, so one would think I would not be scandalized by the presence of Roman or Constantinopolitan customs within the church. For whatever reason, at that moment I was caught off guard, and began to doubt whether Orthodoxy was relevant in its timeless enshrinement of an ancient cultus.

Before I tell you how I overcame this doubt, I will now briefly give a pushback to my doubts. The use of incense in public worship did not begin with the Romans, nor did it cease after the falls of Rome and Constantinople. In reality many religions worldwide utilize incense in worship, and perhaps more significantly incense was common in the worship of the Jewish Temple – as also was the use of lamp stands. We know from historical accounts and archaeology that even before the peace of Constantine, Christian worship that took place in large houses was thoroughly liturgical (see The Eucharistic Liturgy in Ancient House Churches here). So it would seem that public privilege was not to blame for all liturgical inventions and reforms. Indeed, we have little evidence that Christian house worship was ever sitting in a circle and singing Kum-Ba-Yah.

The other book I was reading at the time when I encountered my doubt, was Beyond East and West: Problems in Liturgical Understanding. By now I can scarcely remember the theme of this book, except to say that I think it was a collection of essays and published articles by Robert Taft, who is a Jesuit well-versed in the history of the liturgy, especially the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. In the book, he makes the assertion that at the same time that church feasts began to increase, public reception of holy communion became less and less frequent. In other words, more liturgies were being celebrated, but fewer people were taking communion. Perhaps you can see a common theme to the things that gave me doubt: variation, innovation or change in liturgical practice over time.

Now it is really no secret that the church’s liturgy has changed over time, though by and large it has retained the same skeletal structure. However it is somewhat commonplace for many within Orthodoxy to represent the Church and even its history of faith as a monolith. Historically, and at times intellectually this becomes extremely problematic, and even borders on being fundamentalist (in which the Christian faith is a game of Jenga, and any variation or alteration causes the whole edifice to crumble). While the Orthodox Church may not agree with John Henry Newman’s concept of the development of doctrine, it is not at the same time necessary to imagine that diversity and development are altogether foreign to the life of the church.

As many of you probably know, at least in the past century the clergy of the church have encouraged the people to take communion frequently. It is no longer the case that the churches who celebrate communion most frequently actually partake less frequently. This is true for both East and West. So really, the practice of infrequent communion is much less of a problem than it used to be. And if one is to be completely honest, the liturgical history of the church is common to all Christianity, even if some protestants forsook more formal types of liturgy after the reformation. In reality the church’s liturgical life is an unbroken chain (even if one admits of variance) from the time of the apostles and their successors, up to the present.

And now for the joyous resolution to my short story. It was not intellectual arguments that eased my conscience to be firm in my decision to join the Orthodox Church. Rather, it was because I set down those books about the history of the liturgy, and read St. Augustine of Hippo.

Much to my own chagrin, St. Augustine does not hold the same status in contemporary Orthodoxy as he does in the West. There are not a few scholars or pseudo-scholars who look askance at St. Augustine and find seminal within his writings all the future doctrinal problems with Catholicism. I’ve even heard a renowned Orthodox priest whom I greatly respect call Augustine’s De Trinitate a bad book (!).

Here I will not go into detail concerning the East’s contradiction with Augustine, nor will I make a solid attempt to defend his orthodoxy. I merely want to give him credit where credit is due; for if I had not had the boldness to “take and read” St. Augustine, I might not be Orthodox today. In a time of grave doubt I read St. Augustine, whom some Orthodox discount and despise, and instead of doctrinal problems what I encountered was the writings of a man who was just as much a child of the Church as he was its Father and Teacher.  To me, it seemed that St. Augustine was more Orthodox than many people gave him credit for, and his authority in teaching the catholic faith restored my belief in those things that are essential for any catholic Christian. As I read St. Augustine I remembered that I wanted to become Orthodox because they keep the main thing the main thing.

And so, after a brief postponement of my chrismation (I was originally scheduled to be received on Great and Holy Saturday 2011), I was chrismated on the day of Pentecost 2011. I received remission of my sins committed after baptism, was imbued with the Holy Spirit, and received Jesus Christ in the Eucharist with the rest of the Orthodox Faithful.

Glory to God for all things!