March 9, 2015 / Praxis
On geography, state fairs, and deep-fried nostalgia.
January 26, 2017
I woke up in the middle of the night to find I’d been sleepwalking, knocking over tables and shattering glass and spilling food across floors, leaving my apartment a wreckage of spiritual hunger. Although it happened in an instant, this coming-to had been decades in the making, for the journey has spanned a much longer distance than these late-night hours or the square footage of my small urban apartment. It has spanned decades and nearly every region of Christianity. By the time I was eighteen, I’d been a Catholic, an inner-city Latin American Pentecostal, and a suburban megachurch evangelical. Later in my twenties, I’d burrow myself in a Southern Baptist church, then in a working-class charismatic church, then in a non-denominational congregation serving an elite university. In my mid-thirties, I’d enter into leadership at a high-brow upper-Manhattan Presbyterian church. Then two summers ago, turning forty, I was received by Holy Chrismation into the Eastern Orthodox Church, anointed of the same batch of oil that graced the Apostles. And now, waking from this long somnambulance of restless seeking, I dart frantic eyes about me trying to gain my bearings: Where am I? How did I get here? What have I been looking for?
My earliest memories of this journey are in the Catholic church of my boyhood, where I served as head altar boy and attended the parish school for eight years. Here, I experienced God as the roiling of music and the shimmering of liturgy. At the end of Mass, the organist would lose himself in the closing crescendos of his musical score; having fulfilled my altar duties, I’d hurry back into the church to experience the sound amid icon, incense, candle, and glass—an immersive kaleidoscope irradiated with divine Presence.
Driving much of my desire for a heavenly Father was the absence of an earthly father. For twelve years, he had descended into a heroin addiction that shriveled his body and led, finally, to my parents’ divorce. He left home when I was ten and disappeared for three years. Then he called one day saying he was back. He had been “delivered” from drugs, he said, “by the hand of the living God.”
At first I saw this as just another one of his shenanigans to lure us back, but over time I came to feel that the immanent Presence I’d sensed as a boy had somehow broken through the veil and erupted, fierce and alive, in my father’s life. It began remaking him into this man who’d returned to us tall, radiant, ready to love and serve. My parents remarried a year later. In time, my father would go on to become executive director of the drug-rehabilitation program that he himself had completed, Teen Challenge Brooklyn, and to this day he remains the greatest Christian I know.
I fell in love with the church he was attending at the time, a Latin American Pentecostal congregation in Brooklyn. Soon, the mighty force that had seized upon him would start after me. In this environment, my concept of God would transform from ethereal Presence into the winds of disruptive force; as my new spiritual elders put it, I was now being indwelt with the Holy Spirit, lleno del Espíritu Santo.
God had given me back my father, so I would dance like David, voice throttling and hands reaching toward Spirit descending. Eventually, I would receive the gifts of the Spirit, particularly the gift of speaking in tongues. As my exercise of these gifts developed, I’d even receive, just a couple of times, a word of prophesy, an intuition concerning a stranger on the subway that would turn out to be true—but wait . . . how did you know that? how do you know that about me! To this day, these experiences are the closest I feel I’ve ever been to God’s reality.
At the time, it never occurred to me to view any of these new religious experiences as materially different from what I’d experienced earlier as an altar boy. I saw my entire journey from Catholicism to Pentecostalism as an unfolding—as if God had been wooing me from behind Catholic imagery in preparation for this new form of relating. Wasn’t the God who once filled my mouth with eucharistic grace the same one now filling it with other tongues? But no! the people at my church retorted. Catholicism was the “musical chairs” of ritual—at best a distraction, at worst a deception. But I should be thankful, they insisted, that God had led me to a “Full Gospel” church stripped of “man-made tradition” and allowing the Spirit to shine through. So I did as I was told, beating back the Catholic imaginary of my childhood and pressing on to the revelation now entrusted me.
A couple of years later, when I was a senior in high school, my family moved to the Washington, DC, area and I joined my father in attending a largely white suburban evangelical Bible church that had attracted his attention there. My first impression was that no one spoke in tongues. Why was the Spirit not present? Why were these people not grateful, dancing and raising their hands, exalting God for all he is and has done? I soon began to see what had drawn my dad to this church, though. There was something different at work here. These Christians had a high view of the Bible as God’s revelation, and they were living compendiums of scriptural knowledge. What does the Bible say about women in ministry, the proper structure of Christian authority, the relationship between church and state, sex, life, death, even itself? The Bible saturated the community on through to the smallest interactions. As the community enfolded me, they exercised me in the Scriptures. Soon, I became adept at describing the most minute mechanics of salvation—imputation, expiation, justification, substitutionary atonement—with athletic scriptural cross-reference. I was becoming “a man of the Word.”
But this led me to wonder why the Catholicism or Pentecostalism of my earlier days hadn’t taught me this most essential of spiritual disciplines. My current youth pastor explained that Catholicism had taught me empty ritualism, and Pentecostalism, empty emotionalism, but neither had fed me “the sincere milk of the Word”—the essence of Christianity. Anything that undermines Scripture in this way is a deception that I must cast off if I want to see no longer in part but in full.
But even as I exerted myself in this biblicism, I remained blighted by stubborn mystical proclivities. Despite my best efforts to grow, I kept reverting to a spirituality of the heart, body, intuition. When praying in my bedroom, I’d lift my hands. Why couldn’t I just grow forward with gratitude into the true faith now revealed to me? Memories would waft through my prayers. As a dog returneth to his vomit, I’d chastise myself. A syllable or two of glossolalia would try to press through. I would hold it back, like an evil thought. An intuition of the Spirit stirring about me, tongues fluttering about the room, shivers of mystic fits. Then I would regain awareness and ask God to pardon this degenerate emotionalism. But then the sonorous vibration of organ pipes would press back into the room, the numinous odor of incense, flashes of the first Christian weeping before her son for me. I’d be back kneeling in my altar boy’s pew, enveloped in Presence, at the horizon event of the unspeakable. Then at other times, an inexplicable synesthesia would form of these two Christian pasts: Catholic statues arising from their porcelain platforms and beginning to dance in the aisles, rejoicing in Spanish, ¡Ay santo, gloria al Señor!
My youth pastor said I was struggling with “confusion” and medicated me on Bible verses that demonstrated the cessation of Pentecostal effusions millennia ago. I scribbled onto index cards verses warning of the fall of the Papal Church into corruption; I taped them all around my bedroom the better to memorize them. My youth pastor warned, “Wouldn’t Satan be willing to lead these poor people into believing they were communing with the Spirit, or with Mary and the saints, if this might lead them away from the light of the Word?”
I wanted a real Christianity, and I undertook the painful amputation this required.
A few years after college, I moved back to New York City to enter a PhD program. I found myself surrounded now by Anglicans, Episcopalians, and Presbyterians at the center of the city’s intelligentsia. This was no storefront Pentecostalism in the barrio, nor was it your typical suburban evangelicalism.
I came into this new world by way of a small group that was meeting a block from my apartment. It confounded my understandings of what a small group could look like. These people cited T. S. Eliot and Simone Weil in the same thought, the book of Ecclesiastes and Richard Serra together with the Pauline epistles, then all of this finished off with an elegant sip of chartreuse. Where had such an exquisite Christianity come from, and how had I missed it? A Christianity kept a safe distance as much from spastic Puerto Ricans as from suburban evangelicals with unironic mullets. We were liberals, down-with-the-system intellectuals, artists; attuned to nuance, complexity, and culture; VIPs at New York Fashion Week and its after parties. A Christianity of the high mind protected from Papalism, Pentecostalism, and that most accursed of cultural accretions—the Bible-thumping American McChurch. Oh, I’d finally found a place in Christianity to call my home!
We hit the streets one Sunday afternoon to attend art shows. At the end of our day, as we wound our way back in the early evening toward the Midtown subway, I looked up to see the awning of Times Square Church, that Pentecostal bastion where decades earlier my dad had his first encounter with God. This caught me off guard, and I couldn’t hide it. I could feel the supernatural energy pulsing through the doorway. Mi hijo, I could hear my Pentecostal pastora tell me, el Espíritu Santo will always seek out, no matter how far you run. It was there again. That Christianity of intuition and the heart. I could feel my chest thrumming to waves of love. The voices of everyone inside shining out like some sort of singing light. Come on guys; let’s worship with them a little. Why not? They’re our brothers and sisters too! It’d be at the very least an “interesting” experience of cultural otherness, wouldn’t it?
Inside, I tried to keep my cool, but the hymns pressed tears to my eyes, as if it were the most natural thing for an English professor to be standing, weeping, side by side his fabulous friend aesthetes and hundreds upon hundreds of blacks and Latinos on a Sunday evening. I knew that a lot of the worshippers there had, like my dad, been divinely healed from drug addiction and were rejoicing to be free; I knew that lots of them had, like my dad, regained health, family, purpose, life. Who can stand in the presence of Power and Love itself, my dad would ask, and not weep?
In a moment, before I could calculate what was happening, I opened my eyes to find through the blur of tears my friends on either side giggling: Yes, this is Kitschianity at its worst! Thomas Kincaid! Freedom Fries! Oh behold the happy-clappy herd.
When at the age of thirty-five I met my now wife, she urged me to attend the Divine Liturgy with her at her Eastern Orthodox Church. I told her that I’d explored every region of Christendom—been there, done that, with scars to show—so thank you, but no. But she quietly left a book on the Orthodox faith on my desk one day. After a simple perusing, it provoked me to ask questions I’d never asked before. It soon dawned on me that my knowledge of Christianity had been confined not only to its Western half but its modern-Western quadrant. I knew the library of writings from Martin Luther onward, but what had been the rich texture of Christian theology and practice before Western modernity, and why had I been ignorant of it?
I met with her priest to learn how Christian thought had developed in the early East, radiating out of ancient Greece, up into modern Eastern Europe and Russia and then wrapping around to Alaska. I’d always imagined, I suppose, that the Bible had just dropped out of the sky, ready to read, but why hadn’t anyone brought me into dialogue with the living community through whom the Spirit breathed a body of writings that then gained their meaning within the life of that same community? What anterior spiritual understandings led this community—the early Church—to canonize these writings over the many others as testifying to God’s work on earth? How did they understand and interpret the writings they compiled? I began reading these early Church Fathers and unearthing a deeper Christianity than I’d ever known.
I was forced to revisit some basic beliefs. All those verses I’d memorized at my Bible church about salvation: how had early Christians such as Saint John Chrysostom interpreted them? “God became man,” wrote Saint Athanasius, “so that man might become God.”1 In the incarnation, God participated in our earthly life and death in order to assume fallen creation back into himself. For these early Christians, being “saved” had less to do with mental assent to propositions than with participating, in living flesh and blood, in God’s divine life through Christ. And the early Church that curated the Bible had also curated rich liturgical practices for our full-self participation in Christ’s re-assumption and transfiguration of creation. Liturgy after Liturgy, this more holistic Christianity, hiding for so long in plain sight, disclosed itself.
The Orthodox priest helped me make sense of why I’d endured such heartbreak across the previous decades. Protestants, he explained, had deviated off course from the line of historical continuity that might have given them consistency with original Christian thinking and practice. The Western-individualist character of Protestantism insisted that if I don’t like this particular belief, I’ll just create another one, driving its adherents toward perpetual schismatic mania. I stayed up late in the evenings with the priest, who helped me see how this mentality led my former Protestant churches into hermeneutical arrogance. A Protestant will legitimate his own particular denomination “because the Bible says so”; his own particular denomination, if one only read the Bible closely and carefully enough, reveals itself, clearly, to be the true church. Yet ten different Protestants belonging to ten different denominations will claim ten different Bible-centered rationales—chapter and verse and all—to justify their own denomination. Each will insist that, if you just pray sincerely enough and seek God hard enough and renounce your selfish motives deeply enough, you will gain objective clarity into the Scriptures and see the world as I do.
Yet, the priest demanded, across hundreds of Protestant denominations, where was that clarity? It was through the Eastern Orthodox Church, he said, that God sought to bring all this demotic squabbling to rest, conferring unity upon minds confused by private interpretations. It was the Protestant compulsion to innovate, to retrofit Scripture to legitimate this innovation, and then to demonize those who innovate differently that imperiled Western Christianity in general and nearly destroyed me in particular.
I would finally become Orthodox, cleaving myself through Chrismation to “the One True Church,” “the Very Fullness of the Faith.” I would now bring to repose the ontological gnawing keeping me scrambling across decades, pursuing the place where God most fully dwells.
About a year into my new Orthodox life, I struggled with an especially difficult bout of confusion one Sunday morning. Our priest was preaching that heaven would be Orthodox Liturgy just like this, the faithful silently absorbing divine procession forever. Yet when I closed my eyes, I kept seeing a celestial storefront church of working-class Latinos. Shivers of divine eros. Eruption of hands. Shouts of praise. ¡Por siempre tu nombre será exaltado! But they were not alone. Spread out throughout and beyond them was an expanse of Christians somehow doing very different things in unison: crossing themselves at altars, contemplating academic sermons, clapping hands and swaying in choir robes, standing, kneeling, locking hands in expanding rings of dancing—Hebrew cymbals, English boys choirs, African djembe drums, ancient lyres, the worship rock of American millennials. Why couldn’t it be, I prayed? Why couldn’t the kingdom be the perplexingly beautiful reconciliation of those who respond in love to Christ in whatever way they’ve had the chance to come in contact with his voice? Saint Basil the Great alongside Billy Graham alongside Pope Francis alongside the thief on the cross—“And heaven will be Liturgy eternal,” our priest interrupted, “just as is practiced in the Holy Orthodox Church every Sunday, heretics of the True Faith finally vanquished!”
I tried to press the pleading voices back, press them back and away. I labored to reopen my eyes and resume my forward gaze. I had to focus on Liturgy. I had to prepare for heaven.
Just a few months ago, we attended a church potluck after church one Sunday. As we served ourselves Greek salad and feta burgers, conversation made its way to the Great Schism, that fateful day “when Rome and the West fell into heresy, cutting themselves off from the salvation of the Holy Orthodox Church.”
“But”—the words just bubbled out of my mouth—“haven’t there been holy Christians in the West from whom we can learn and who will be worshipping in heaven with us? Men and women from across history who have known and loved Christ even from outside of our tradition?”
And it was then that I realized I’d never really told anyone here. What inspired me to follow Christ in the first place. All this time, I’d remained silent about my greatest argument and hope for a church healed of infighting and terror, remade a unity of parts worshiping in strange, transcendent communion—like the day of Pentecost. This would be the moment.
“Like my dad,” I declared. “I’ve seen the light of Christ in him like in no one else! I lost him to heroin addiction when I was a boy but God gave him back to me a renewed Christian when I was fifteen, and he has served God faithfully all these years!”
“You mean to say: he was Chrismated and became Orthodox?”
“No, Protestant! Pentecostal!”
Silence. Then the head of the church council, glancing back and forth at the faithful, broke it: no doubt the father of lies would work miracles for a man freeing him from drugs and whatnot if that might lead him like a puppy down the hole of delusion and darkness, is that not so—
“Yes, yes, it is so,” they responded, looking at one another, and then at him, but not at me.
Erick Sierra (ericksierra.com) is an English professor who writes and speaks on issues of faith, society, and literature.