Another Journey to Orthodoxy
by Columcille Cobain
I must explain first of all that I was not looking for a church to be part of, nor did I consider myself part of any denomination that is, Roman Catholic or Protestant. But I suppose I was 'mostly' Protestant in my theology and outlook. At the time I had no concept of a church apart from the loose dissenters view, in fact I harboured an active dislike for the 'elder' led or 'bishop' led churches and their lifelessness and their divisions. I just didn't want to get involved in such a divided and hideous situation. I was like the son who did not know which mother to love, so I chose none.
But living in Northern Ireland is very strange for a Christian, with its seemingly unbridgeable chasm between our brothers and sisters. We still live in the reformation and the church seems to be in a state of eternal schism, with the stubborn monolithic Roman Catholic hierarchy on one hand and the multitude of Protestant churches and their popes on the other.
"When asked to describe their Faith, in their simplicity some old Russian émigrés used to reply that Orthodoxy is a mixture of Roman Catholicism and Protestantism." I did not follow the teachings of any church, but read the bible myself, like a true Protestant and trusted in the Holy Spirit to discern the wheat from the chaff. Because I was ignorant, I read a lot of the Gospel of John, believing that it was the spirit of John the Baptist speaking. I love John the Baptist and his perfect way of life and I adore the simple words in the gospel of John which flow with life and this was the gospel that I almost always read. I also read the epistle to the Hebrews quite a lot too. Looking back now I realise, for me, John was a hero and I felt that if I could find John, I could find the true church. I felt that a church which contained many ascetics (or pious people), was a church in which people believed it was worthwhile to aim for perfection, one which sees Heaven because it is pure in heart and tries to maintain this vision, shown in acts of loving piety and asceticism. I suppose I stood on the rock, which is old Israel and the old covenant, and I looked out upon the sea which had come from the New Testament and floating in the sea like the rock of old Israel, I began to see the ark coming and it contained all the saints, prophets, patriarchs and Israel; now was the time to get off this old rock, to float, so as not to be overcome. It is often said that the gospel of John is the most Orthodox gospel and it is deep in theology. That is why I immediately recognised orthodox teachings especially the Holy Trinity (which I understood as being one and equal) and understanding that the Almighty God is a Living Man. I am a Protestant; I know the faith is simple. The Holy Trinity is an open door to Heaven, all we have to do is use all the free will that God gave us. Being a Protestant I also wanted to know the origin of all those traditions and celebrations, the remnant of which I had received from my mother in the form of Methodism.
They don't teach you about the Orthodox Church in school (even then, 1000 yrs seemed like a big gap in history!). We were taught a bit about the age of saints in Ireland, but this golden age in the church was passed off as being inspired by a childlike race with heretical doctrine and priestly magic and the reformation corrected these heretics, thank god. All I can say is, that it is the Almighty Himself who has led me to the true church and has corrected me in many of my beliefs and ways. Jesus said, 'come and see' and I did, but I could only read about it in books and on the Internet (which must be at least as good as the library at Alexandria was) as there are no Orthodox parishes in Ulster, well not since 1054 as I would later find out.
My first experience of the Orthodox Church, apart from reading about it in the bible, came from the Ethiopians* with all their proud claims about their church and its antiquity. I was intrigued and I wanted to learn more about them. The first book I read was called the Heart of Ethiopia that was written by a British consul of the Orthodox Christian Emperor of Ethiopia in the 60s. He tours the main Holy places and goes to their Holy festivals and describes them. Please excuse this long quotation but his words are better than mine at describing what I was beginning to realise,
"This, undoubtedly, is the Christian church as it once was; as it was before the reformation; as it was in Byzantine times - a combination of crown and cross, of bell, book and candle, in a world that was largely illiterate, enacting the Christian year in ritual and processional, richly elaborate or touchingly simple according to the place and time. In Tigre the Christians delved underground, as they did in the early days in the catacombs of Rome. And in their hidden Holy places in the rough, raw mountains they concealed themselves from Moslem and pagan enemies. So nothing changed. All was preserved in its primitive form, with no Erasmus, no Martin Luther to probe and query and put the question, "Why do we do this?" In Ethiopia they do it because they have always done it. The prince from his palace and the peasant from his hut join in, each in his several degree, before the priest, who holds out this paradox. All shall be unequal in this world in order to be equal in the next. And in spite of the modern politics of egalitarianism, in spite of the tourist poking in their cameras into ancient Biblical scenes like maggots crawling into an overripe apple, in spite of the new generation of English speaking schoolboys without reverence or manners, the Church still thrives. New churches spring up. Every year the sanctified water of Timkat (epiphany) is scattered over the crowd on Janhoy Meda in the capital and splashed in the faces of the imperial ministers. As in Greece and Cyprus, the ancient inflexible Orthodox church of the Eastern empire retains its close connection with the State, and a mere display of liberal sentiment is unlikely to disturb it.".
The thing that struck me about the orthodox faith was its sanctity (holiness) of both laity and priesthood, coherent simplicity (theologically) and steadfastness. Illiterate people could understand. But the main impression I got was that of completeness, of fullness of the faith as had been intended. And I found John the Baptist in the form of the anchorites clinging to Athos and elsewhere.
One thing that I am deeply ashamed about, before finding Orthodoxy, I had disregarded Mary, mankind's forgotten hero, just like all Protestants do. It is almost as if when you find Mary, you find the church, she is its strength. Mary's love for us is overwhelming.
I was then faced with the problem of what to do, now that I had seen the fullness of my faith, even though I hadn't even heard a Liturgy, only read about it, I knew that I must board this Holy Ark to aid my salvation. The problem was, Orthodoxy seemed like a foreign religion; far away and exotic to me. It didn't take me long to realise that my own people had once held the Orthodox faith in the very land in which I live and ruins of some Orthodox sites still remain. And this time was a golden age for us, a testament to the Orthodox faith and the might of the Holy Trinity. Naturally, I began to read about the old Church in the British Isles and one of the first things I read was St. Patrick's confession which is so simple and Orthodox. I feel very close to that man and I was very shocked when he spoke to me, being apostle of Irish people, because I could understand him so well and I marvelled at how after all this time, he still is able to convert us to the Orthodox faith.
Of course, when I took part in a Liturgy for the first time I felt like old prince Vladimirs' servants in the Hagia Sophia. I was greeted with an Holy kiss by the community and even Ethiopians thought the place worthy to come to.
A lot of people say, after they have found the Orthodox Church, they feel as if they've 'come home'. I share this feeling. I am Orthodox because I feel at home here, not because of some misty eyed sentimentality about the old Celtic church or a desire to be Greek or Russian or as a solution to the troubles. I am who I am and I want to be worthy of the life to come and I know that the Holy Orthodox Church speaks of the truth and can help me. I bear no grudges against any denomination, Roman Catholic or Protestant because I love what is good. But it is clear to me, an ignorant and unlearned layman who merely believes in Him, that Holy Orthodoxy is the root and the truth that He preached and all must return to her or remain divided forever. I know tradition is a way of passing down knowledge without books. I know that it is the multitudes (poor in spirit) who guard the kingdom of heaven and it is the elder led, pope led, bishop led churches which have deviated, when has schism ever been led by the multitudes? Never. The Church has always known this, so it does not dare deviate, for it does not have the right to, there are no leaders in Orthodoxy, only servants and fathers, brothers and sisters. I have opened my mind to the truth, but I kept both my eyes on my God, Jesus and He heard my cries as He promised and He has led me into the sheepfold for He is the true shepherd of all. As far as leprechaun spirituality goes, yes, they were converted too.
Incidentally, I have just noticed that the book about the Orthodox Ethiopians that influenced me so much was from the library in Bangor (the Carnegie Library) where I live, even though I bought it in an old junk shop in Belfast among thousands of other old books for about 10p after looking for about 2 seconds. It is almost as if Comgall himself gave it to me out of his Coptic collection!! This is how the book starts, forgive my long quotation,
"Chapter 1- Hill Station Extraordinary. Some people told me I was a brave man to go to Ethiopia, and clearly it was a polite way of saying I was a fool. "The Emperor is old," they said. "When he dies there will be bloody chaos. There is great tension between Christians and Muslims, which could break out into violence at any moment. Didn't you read the Sunday paper magazine section? There are thousands of beggars there. The Eritrean separatist movement is dangerous." I listened but was unduly worried. I was coming from a country where, less than a month before, a man had been kicked to death in the street, and a few weeks before that hundreds of people had been burned out of their homes, all in the name of religion; where the separatist movement uses gelignite, petrol bombs and machine-guns; where the beggars strum guitars; where nearly a million people are said to be without adequate housing; where many of the weak-minded languish ill-cared for and unloved, committed to ill-found institutions. I refer to the affluent society of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and in particular to Northern Ireland and the death of Mr King in Londonderry in September 1969."
I shuddered in the presence of God. The murder of both Christian Kings heralds the beginning of years of bloody war. Some people may say I am a fool becoming Orthodox but I am unduly worried, I will suffer with my brothers and sisters in Ethiopia and Lebanon like we have done always. Others might say that I am young and stupid but I ask them to read these words back to me on Judgement Day so that we might be filled with joy. Lord Jesus Christ Son of God have mercy on me a sinner. Amen.
* Editor's note
In common with all Orthodox, Antioch subscribes to all 7 Ecumenical Councils as non-negotiable, including the Fourth Council of Chalcedon which articulated the divine-human union in the One Person of Christ. Ethiopian and other Oriental Orthodox Christians do not subscribe to the Fourth or later Councils. However, progress has been made recently between Orthodoxy and the Oriental traditions and some now see this long running dispute as less significant on the level of misunderstood theological terms. It is to be hoped that Chalcedon, rightly understood, will now become a source of unity rather than division between separated brethren.