How the Church retained me through my 20s and how I grew disaffected by my 30s (Part One)


When I worked at an Episcopal cathedral in my early 20s, the department of which I was a part often asked how to attract young people to the congregation and its liturgical services. But no one ever asked me why I had stayed in the Church nor did they ask what kept me there. I believe it is a mistake to focus on recruitment when retention has not been examined — or mastered.  While one reason  I may not have asked why I continued going to church was because I was (and am) Orthodox, I believe my experience is broadly applicable to any of the organised, hierarchical and historically continuous denominations of Christianity.  That is how I will define the term “Church” for the purposes of this essay.

I grew up at the altar.  I first became an acolyte, that is, an altar boy, when I was 8, and by the time I was 15, I was serving nearly every Sunday.  Church services, however, weren’t the only factor in my spiritual and religious formation.  Rather, I was surrounded by public rituals and liturgical celebrations in Germany and while on holiday in various Mediterranean countries.  Some celebrations were also brought into the home, as during St Martin’s Day, Advent, St Nicholas’s Day, and Epiphany/ Theophany.  Interested in my religion, I also often happened to read devotional books which were put out for anyone to peruse and take home — so not all my “home spirituality” was ritualised.

Additionally, I had good catechism teachers — and a few boring ones.   The boring ones fell into two categories:  those who talked above our heads (few and far between) and those who were just learning the material themselves or reading from insipid and transparently manipulative books which emphasised generic cultural values like “sharing” and “being good”, books without any real substance or interest in cultivating the skills necessary for further spiritual growth and maturity later in our lives.  Luckily, this latter type of teacher (and text) was also few and far between.  I was also exposed to a range of theological sources, both Latin and Byzantine, and this influence extended to the liturgy as well.

The congregation — of which the teachers were a necessary part — was also influential, and my family’s friends seemed mostly drawn from church, perhaps because the parents would go out together to a cafe after services, while the kids were in Sunday school.  We were also friends with the priests of the parish, and sometimes had them over for dinner or otherwise spent time in conversation with them.

The sacraments, primarily the Eucharist and confession, were lifelines for me.  I was invested in deepening my experience of them, and because of that, I was invested in the Church, its liturgy, its mysticism, its history, community, and theology.  I felt called to the priesthood.  Although I would rarely actively discuss this, out of embarrassment, perhaps, other congregants took note and I was actively encouraged by priests, a bishop, and many community members to “think about” becoming a priest.  Interestingly, it seemed as obvious that I was called to the priesthood as it was obvious that I wasn’t heterosexual, although I would not say one was the cause of the other, merely that just as one can “tell” at a glance where someone’s orientation lies, so also with this vocational direction.  Perhaps I’m wrong; perhaps in the ’80’s and early ’90’s the two were not so sharply distinguished, and if a community member were thought to be gay, he would be encouraged to enter the celibate ministry.  (I wonder what lesbians were encouraged to do.)  In my case, however, I think I was encouraged to the priesthood for other reasons.  Too many people mentioned it, even after I came out, for me to think it had anything at all to do with sexuality.

In any event, what I never encountered was bad mouthing, either other religions or other community members.  Not that Protestant denominations were particularly admired (except for the music and preaching of some denominations), but it was never considered irrelevant,  inconsequential, or invalidated as a part of someone’s identity.  At least not that I was able to perceive at that age.  I did understand that Protestant theology was rather different from Catholicism and had a later pedigree, if you will.  Certainly, though, I never saw any condemnation of individuals, nor heard of large groups of individuals condemned, neither “abortionists” nor “homosexuals” — in contrast, apparently, to what was going on in the States at the time.

Instead, what I saw was law with compassion.  I was taught the moral position of the Church, and shown the pastoral complications and manner in which it must be tempered or expressed.  The importance of keeping details in correspondence with the big picture was not forgotten, but a belief in the complexity of applying the abstract concretely was recognised and inculcated, at least in me.

During my last two years of high school, in the States, I became a lay eucharistic minister, and had the opportunity to give the holy gifts to my fellow parishioners — even those whom I personally did not like, including a dentist whose work on my teeth still annoys me.  Of course, such personal disagreements had little to do with the Church, nor did it affect our participation in the liturgy together.  My experience of a particular Irish-American priest in the confessional, though, was different.  Not that anything untoward happened.  It was more his manner, his authoritarianism that disturbed me.  And a certain illogic on his part.    It was a brief encounter, and since we had the fortune to have several priests to choose from, I never went back to confession with him (I started going to an Irish priest from N. Ireland instead).  Years later, that Irish-American priest would leave the priesthood.  It was the first encounter I had with what I’ve come to learn seems to have been the typical experience of American Catholics.

In college, I came out and encountered American Catholics for the first time — and the scars they suffered from the combination of political agendas with religious instruction.  That combination, ironically, also too often seemed to lead to an ignorance of the catechism of the Church, to say nothing of its spiritual treasures.  Certainly the experience and writings of the saints, the mysticism and spirituality embodied in the history and life of the Church seems to have been neglected in favour of inculcating a predetermined political stance — one which did not seem to include a “preferential option for the poor.”

In such a context, those who liked the Church could easily be seen as being uneducated, naive, sheltered, bigoted, or otherwise conservative.  I would note that the reverse process also had its influence:  being conservative was seen as the result of naivete, lack of exposure, lack of thinking through various positions.  I suppose this is a typical college milieu, and I am not arguing that I am conservative.  As I would describe myself years later, I was progressively oriented and historically minded.  The distinction between historical-mindedness, with its desire to examine the virtues of the received tradition, and simple-minded conservatism, however, was not a distinction easily made by most people around me at that time.

College saw a clear but simple mix of good and bad experiences of the Church.  One of the best experiences in either the Catholic or Orthodox church was a service of anointing for those affected by HIV/ AIDS.  The less encouraging, insofar as the Catholic church is concerned, were with a couple different priests who didn’t quite understand that my focus in the Confessional was not so much on being scrupulous so much as being desirous of pursuing a life of Christian perfection and deepening my spiritual practice.  Perhaps they were right that a college student should not apply to his own life the instructions St John of the Cross or St Francis gave to monastic novices.  “Are you Francis?  Are you John?”  is a question I was asked once.  But it only takes once, sometimes.

Looking back, I may also have felt shut out of making a contribution to the parish by not being able to put my strength — a background in classics, Church history, and a thorough grounding in the catechism — into practice a a CCD teacher.  I watched as the volunteer position for a middle school catechism teacher remained open for months, after my offer to take it up was turned away.

Ironically, years later I would be the one to turn down an offer to teach Sunday School at the Orthodox Church I attended in SF.

It was during college in NY that I formally switched denominations, from the Latin to the Byzantine Church, although I had made up my mind to do so long before college, for reasons I may detail in another post.  I continued attending church, as much as was possible.  Why?  Simply put, I liked the music, the language, the routine, and the people.  Going to church on Sunday mornings set up my week and weekend.  Liturgy in two languages presented an intellectual puzzle for me to figure out, and connected me to a continuity with the past.  The people were for the most part friendly and open, and it had a few college kids who also attended.  I applied to the Greek seminary in Brookline.  I was accepted.  I deferred, originally for only one year.  I moved to San Francisco, where I got a job working in a church, ostensibly because I wanted to see what it was like to work in a church environment before I became a priest or deacon.

The West Coast was certainly more congenial to my general disposition than NY and the East Coast ever were.  I lived right around the corner from the parish church (technically a cathedral), and I would even make it to services after a night of dancing and getting home at 3am (or later) — sometimes even with the remnants of “guyliner” still shading my eyes.  I wonder if I would have made it to services had I to walk further than a block and a half!  I was also working at the Episcopal Cathedral.

Yet this time period also saw the beginning of the shift away from the Church, and as such perhaps deserves its own exploration.  What had stayed the same?  What had changed?  Since the focus of this post is more on how the Church retained me, those questions must be deferred.

I spent about two years going to that parish, and then I took a trip to Mt Athos, the historic centre of Orthodox Christian monasticism.  Before I went, I was given the advice, by more than one person, not to be scandalised by anything I saw or heard.  Similar advice had been given to me before going to the Seminary — advice I hadn’t needed to follow up on, since I never actually matriculated.  “The devil,” I was told, “is most active in places where holiness is pursued.”  How true.  On Athos, however, I offered a different sort of advice to one fellow pilgrim, who seemed scandalised and affronted by the divisions between Latins and Byzantines:  “You don’t come to Athos to be coddled, but to be challenged.”  After my return, I would say now to a potential pilgrim:  “The most talkative monks are not necessarily the monks you should be listening to.”

One key event happened to me while on Athos which have a bearing on my participation in Church.  The first was that I was excommunicated, that is, I was forbidden to receive the Eucharist for a year.  This was the penance I received in the confessional.  Frankly, I didn’t understand it, since I don’t go to confession unless I’m willing to stop or work on whatever it was that I confessed.  Worse, Athos was the start of a pilgrimage to many of the monasteries throughout the Middle East and Eastern Europe, and the very action of communion with those parishes and communities had just been stripped away from me, and for what?  For actually going to the sacrament of forgiveness!?  Never mind the fact that when I was younger the sacraments were what kept me going to church far more than the music and community I mentioned above.  I could find music and community in other places, to put it bluntly, but the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular, that could only be found in a few select places.

Although I tried to mention to the monk I didn’t think this was a good idea, protesting in the Confessional over a penance was not my custom (despite the inaccurate accusation of an abbot at another Athonite monastery, that he knew people like me, and we always argued with our spiritual fathers over our penances).  Suffice it to say I did end up scandalised and it took years to come to terms with that penance.  I guess one could argue it shocked my pride, and that may be so — but it also loosened my ties to the Eucharsitic assembly, and thus to my union with the Church (a connexion the Orthodox theologian Zizioulas points out in one of his books).  More than that, however, it tore apart a sense of trust I had had in the Church’s ministers up until that point.  That trust I have yet to recover, and I have not gone back to Confession at all in the ten years which have elapse since that experience.

To this day, I’m still unclear about the reason for that particular penance; I guess I never really asked him why.  It could very well have been for “homosexual activities.”  Although when I told one Greek guy my penance his jaw dropped (“What, did you kill someone?”  he asked me), it seems, from discussion with a Romanian pilgrim who went to Confession to this particular monk that I was given a somewhat light sentence.  He was told not to receive communion for five years.  I was told that the penance would last a year, unless I were baptised again.  While I don’t think it was imposed on me to manipulate me into accepting an uncanonical baptism after chrismation, it certainly left that taste in my mouth.

While on Athos, I also got a taste of what the entrenched Irish Catholic authoritarianism many of my acquaintances from college had experienced in their churches growing up, except with an Orthodox flavour.

But I didn’t leave the Church at that point.  I continued my pilgrimage, and found the churches of Lebanon and Syria to be very welcoming, hospitable, pastorally oriented, theologically educated, full of humility and sincerity and strength.  For years, it was Antioch — and Bucharest — that kept me from leaving the Church entirely.  Arab Christians know what it is like to live in a world where most people are not Christian, and where ethnicity is no guarantee of remaining one.

However, not having a reason to go to the liturgy, that is, not being able to receive the Eucharist, when I returned to the States, I only sporadically attended services.  After a six month stint in Spain which was also filled with pilgrimages to various sites, from Braga to Granada, and where I prepared myself to study Visigothic and Mozarabic (i.e. Late Antique and Early Medieval) Chrisitan theology, I came back to SF.  I did not return to the Greek parish I had attended previously.  I had no real connexion there anymore, felt it had no place for me.  I had been there for years and people still asked if I was Greek.  Which wouldn’t have been so bad, except it is the first and most basic question the parishioners ask — meaning they hadn’t even got this most basic of information after years of being there.  So instead of the Greek parish, I initially started going to the Russian church on Geary Blvd, which is where St John Maximovich of Shanghai and SF rests.  If I could not receive communion, I could at least go to where the relics were.  Although the excommunication had “expired”, the habit of not receiving was ingrained in me.  That and the fear of humans reprimanding me for approaching the Holy Mysteries.

Even though I knew that during his lifetime, Jesus dined with harlots and sinners.

It was a bit of a hike for me to get to the Russian Church, and I don’t understand any Slavic at all.  I never got to know anyone in the parish.  Not that they were unfriendly; the parishioners just kept to their pre-established circles of friends, and everyone who was there was expected to already know the routines of what happened after the liturgy concluded, if there were any.  Eventually I heard a particular priest had returned to SF and was saying the liturgy at the Greek parish I had formerly attended, so I returned to that parish, specifically because of him.  His sermons were incredible, and I felt he “got it” — he took to heart the message of social justice embodied in the Prophets and Gospel.

This time, the experience was a little different, but challenges I had first encountered in Athos were beginning to play themselves out.

(Substantially written on the Feast of the Nativity of the Theotokos, 2009)

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