Everybody’s got a story

I have never particularly wanted this to be “a convert’s blog”. I am an Orthodox Christian, yes, and a convert to same, and that’s one of the things I write about, but hardly the only thing. This is basically my notebook for interesting things that happen to me and the things that occur to me that I hope will be interesting, and I’ve written about my experience as an Orthodox Christian but also about religion as a broader phenomenon, movies, music, travel, language, school, and so on. There are big things that have happened to me I have specifically not written about, either because discussing them publicly will either be awkward, send the wrong message to certain parties, and maybe they’ll just be boring in the context of a blog.

My conversion experience falls under the last of those categories. There was a time when I was devouring convert stories and eager to tell my own to whomever might listen, but after awhile I realized that it The Journey of the American Orthodox Convert had become its own genre with its own tropes. Much like, say, Rush, it’s a kind of product that is principally interesting to other people who produce the same kind of product (and I speak as a Rush fan), and while that’s not to say that people don’t encounter such an account for the first time and find it meaningful (after all, I had to become a Rush fan), the Next Great Conversion Story isn’t, I don’t think, really the cultural lack that somebody like me needs to be desperate to fill. I’m happy to tell my story if people ask, but the other problem is that if the chrism oil going on the forehead is the telos, the happy ending and the whole point of the story, then that’s a truly unrealistic picture of the Christian life. It’s really not a matter of being dunked and/or basted, everybody saying “Seal!”, receiving the Body and Blood for the first time, going home, and then everybody lives happily ever after on a diet of incense, icons, and chant, all covered with awesome sauce. That’s no more true than the wedding being the end of the story for a relationship — and also recall that the normative experience for an Orthodox Christian would be infant baptism, which makes these kinds of convert stories not just outliers, but self-selected outliers. Anyway, there’s still a life that has to be lived afterward, and that’s the real story and struggle. I’ve seen my share of converts who fall off as quickly as they jumped on, and I think it’s because they weren’t adequately prepared for that, perhaps due to the unrealistically rosy picture that some convert accounts paint.

Still, some of my recent posts, I realize, perhaps need more context. I came very close a couple of times to referencing things that happened to me during my path to being received into the Orthodox Church, and I realized that they wouldn’t make any sense without the whole story. So I left those things out. I told somebody recently that I’m no good at apologetics, because what I find convincing is a result of some points that are a little too peculiar to me, but I should probably explain what those points actually are.

Here’s the thing — I’m really terrible at short versions of stories, as anybody who is the least bit familiar with me or this blog probably knows (and certainly as the board members of the St. John of Damascus Society know by now). I also really really really don’t have time to just write a novel right now, so this is going to get split up into multiple posts. It’s entirely possible that it may not happen linearly. Nobody’s exactly begged me to write this, so I’m certain the three of you out there who read this won’t care, but just so we’re all clear. Don’t make me pull this car over.

Where I will start for now is that my first real “religious” memory is being baptized at the age of three on Easter Sunday, 6 April 1980 (right in the middle of the Iranian hostage crisis, and evidently the same day the Paschal greeting was first given in Hebrew by Pope John Paul II), in Anchorage, Alaska at St. Mark Lutheran Church (way back in the day when it was LCA rather than ELCA). I got dressed up in a sailor suit, and what I remember is that my godfather (Karl Bartholomy, my dad’s best friend) picked me up by my ankles and dipped my head in the baptismal font. That’s about all of that I remember, but my mother provides an account in my baby book:

Richard was baptized on Easter Sunday. It was a lovely and very special ceremony. Karl lifted Richard up to the baptismal font and the highlight was when they lighted a candle and gave it to Richard to hold. He wore a little white sailor suit with gold buttons, a red tie and his black water boots! (His new sandals were too small.) Uncle Dan [my mother’s brother] couldn’t make it as he lives in Seattle. But Mimi [my paternal grandmother], Great Grandpa [my dad’s maternal grandfather] and Alma came up especially for Richard’s baptism! He was so cute and sweet and such a good boy. I took my first communion on that day too. So it was all in all a very special day. (Karl and Nancy camee from Fairbanks just for Richard too.) And Daddy came to church!

Huh. I actually don’t think I knew that Mom took first communion that day. She was 25, and my dad was 34.

My mom and I went to St. Mark’s semi-regularly, as I recall, but my first memory of regular church attendance was when we moved to Wenatchee, Washington towards the end of 1980. We went to Grace Lutheran Church, and what I principally remember are a) not really wanting to go because I liked to sleep in on Sunday morning, b) sitting in a pew at some point during the service and reading a book, minding my own business, and some dude standing behind me thumping my shoulders to try to get me to stand up, c) the pastor giving me a blessing at the rail rather than communion, and d) being entranced by the candlelight service at Christmas Eve. It’s the only aesthetic point I remember at all about my Lutheran experience, truth be told.

If it’s not evident by now, there was no particular unity of faith in our little family — my dad, as I understood by the time I was five, is an avowed atheist. More on that as it is relevant.

This manner of being didn’t last long, as in 1984 we moved from the east side of the mountains to the Seattle area, at which point much about how my family functioned in relation to Christianity changed. So much, in fact, that it’s going to have to wait for another post.


12 Responses to “Everybody’s got a story”

  1. 1 Owen White 27 January 2012 at 3:48 pm

    On a side note, is the shouting “Seal!” at chrismations something done in all AOANA parishes, or just in former EOC parishes (or parishes with former EOC clergy)? I hadn’t seen that until I ended up in a former EOC parish in the AOANA, which is to say I had not seen it in the OCA, ROCOR, and GOArch parishes where I had seen chrismations. I can’t remember if I’ve ever seen a chrismation at a non-former EOC AOANA parish. I was always curious about the pedigree of that practice.

    • 2 Samn! 27 January 2012 at 5:56 pm

      It’s certainly not the practice in the Middle East….. I’d never heard of it before just now.

    • 3 Richard Barrett 27 January 2012 at 5:59 pm

      It’s not even in the little red Antiochian service book, and they definitely didn’t do it at the baptisms in Greece I attended. It may or may not be an EOC thing, but it could very well be a “This’ll give the people something to do besides stand outside and smoke!” move that somebody made somewhere along the way.

    • 4 Ole Kern 27 January 2012 at 6:07 pm

      Karim confirmed that it is only an AOANA thing.

    • 5 Anna 28 January 2012 at 2:56 pm

      My OCA parish in Chicago does it. I’ve never seen it in Greece.

  2. 6 Ole Kern 27 January 2012 at 5:23 pm

    Owen, I believe it is only an AOANA thing. I’m confirming with my Palestinian friend (I think I asked him already, but forget). Considering that it was said at two non-former EOC AOANA parishes back 25 years ago when I was Chrismated, I don’t think it has anything to do with the EOC.

  3. 7 puja gandhi 6 March 2013 at 9:08 am

    I’m reading this over a year post-posting, and I’m really appreciating that you posted it. 🙂

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