Leaving Rome and Coming Home Again

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I’m internet friends with Rod Dreher, whom I think is a great guy. Our friendship has been formative for my thinking on many things (read his Crunchy Cons to understand where I’m coming from more often than not).
Rod had become a serious Catholic, but then in his capacity as a journalist began investigating the Scandals that broke out in 2002, and it simply rocked him. He became Orthodox as a way to preserve his Christian faith. I think it’s fair to say that his move was more existential than theological. (He’s written about this publicly; I’m not telling tales out of school.)
A couple weeks ago I wrote a piece called “Ecclesiadicy” for First Things, in which I basically drew on Augustine’s dark conceptions of human nature and concept of the Church as a corpus permixtum and said that bad bishops do not necessarily call the historic claims of apostolic succession into question. Bishops are fallen people too. Certainly the ideas in the piece are debatable, but my simple point was that we shouldn’t be choosing churches on the basis of their perceived holiness or efficiency or anything else but rather first ask the important question, What is Christ’s will for the structure of the Church?
All this is prolegomena to the story I paste below, which is originally a comment respond to one of Rod Dreher’s blog posts on the Fr Groeschel scandal (stolen from here). As the blogger who originally posted it said: “Whatever ecclesial direction one happens to head in (if any), these words strike me as hitting at the humanity involved in the struggle of religious identity in the spiritual marketplace that is America.”
As I am in story telling mode this weekend, I think I may have a tale apropos enchantment to share with you. This story I’m going to tell is not in any way meant as a criticism of you, Rod. In fact, I usually sympathize and always empathize with you. It’s why I keep reading your blog, and when they gagged you at that other gig of yours, I missed this daily dose of Dreher immensely. I’ve already told you I get why you did what you did, and that I respect it. I, after all, have done the same thing.
Because I don’t know if you remember my sharing this from the old Belief Net days, but I’ve converted to Orthodoxy, too. Pascha 2005, Holy Theophany in Colorado Springs. Maybe one of the 10 best OCA parishes on the continent.
I did it partly from a similar emotional alienation to yours. Back in 1997 when those 9 former Legionaries first accused Maciel, and then nothing happened, I knew in my gut that it was true. I’d been romantically involved with a girl in Regnum Christi for two years (non- consecrated teacher at the school for consecrated in RI, no less) and been on multiple Legion retreats. I’d been drinking from the polluted well of Maciel’s Cult of Personality, and had bought into the lie pretty deeply.. But not so deeply that I hadn’t already begun to walk away before I knew the worst.. I’d been growing skeptical, could feel something was off in my bones.
But I was till starry eyed enough then that the realization that he was a sociopath, and that the Holy Father was going to do nothing about it, still wrecked me. When the rest of it broke, it only deepened my angst and anguish.
Unlike you, I guess, I then also had a major intellectual collapse. I was in the Army, studying out in Monterey, and made a group of Orthodox friends. All evangelical converts like the people out at Holy Theophany. There’s another parish I began going to to escape the insipid masses at the Presidio, out in Cali at Ben Lomond; SS Peter & Paul. They also are all evangelical converts who came in corporately with Fr. Gilquist back in the day. I began a friendly debate with them, arrogant in my assumption that my canned Catholic Answers/EWTN apologetic of the Gregorian papacy would drive them from the field. Tearing any protestant an apologetic new one based on scripture and tradition was easy, so how hard could these Orthos be? I had received my education from the Donminicans at Providence College, I knew my stuff.. Or so I smugly thought..
But when I went deeper into the Fathers and the history of the Councils, and listened to the Orthodox case, I suddenly saw that the Gregorian Reform was a radical innovation. Just as radical in it’s effects as Constantine’s conversion itself, and far more radical in its claims. The ecclesiology of the Church from Constantine through Charlemagne was Imperial, and the Emperor was calling most of the major shots. All the seven Councils were called by him, the pope never even attended one. Paul wrote half the NT, not Peter. Athanasius settled the Arians, the papacy sat the entire debate out. The most important theological debate in the history of Christianity, and the popes were basically silent, the whole battle basically occurred in the East. It was only with the rise of the Franks, and the vacuum created by the utter withdrawal of Imperial forces from Italy and North Africa in the face of the Muslims that the dominance and authority of the “Greek” Emperor was called into question.
We can thank the Muslims for the Schism..
The filioque suddenly seemed like a tool used by the Franks to claim the Roman Imperium from the Greek “heretics.” The entire Schism, and the attendant rise of the Germans against Rome (which culminated in the Reformation note) all seemed driven by lust for Imperial power by Aachen, Rome and Constantinople.. And then Moscow. See Romanides on this. Heresy meant illegitimacy. Hence the recriminations all around. He baldly states the core of it far more eruditely than I can.
Tearing apart sola scriptura is one thing. Realizing that the only thing holding up Rome apologetically is Cardinal Newman’s theory of the development of doctrine, and that the ecclesiology of the Church in the 1st Millennium had absolutely nothing to do with Unam Sanctam or Vatican I, just totally wrecked me.
So I fell apart. The center no longer held, and the entire post- vat ii schict suddenly seemed fraudulent. I had to leave. So I did. I became Orthodox, and went on a retreat to St. Anthony’s in Arizona. Was blessed by Elder Ephraim himself. I was off and running.
(I incidentally have also met Metropolitan Jonah, when he was still abbot in the mists on the hill above San Fran, before the horse farm. He was very kind and funny. I liked him instinctively, with his squint, his patchy beard and marvelous physiognomy.. He seemed more like he ought to have been the porter, not the abbot. Never bishop. I say that as a compliment, because I have much more esteem for porters than bishops. I was very pleased when he was elevated. I’m very sorry, but not at all surprised at how it all turned out. I bet he was incompetent in their sense of the term, and I was not impressed by his political hay making. Still, they did not deserve him, and they should never have removed him.. That’s my 2 cents there, but I digress.. )
Suddenly the liturgy and fasting – things that as a Catholic I had never cared about – consumed me. I became a snob, judging church architecture, iconography and hymnody like a prig. If there was an organ, it was fraud. You know the deal. I became insufferable.
Three years. First it was great. Two Paschas, mind blowing stuff. Never knew such beauty before. I drank it in, parched for it.
Then I moved back to the boondocks in Maine, and had a two hour drive to the nearest Greek parish. Tried multiple times to make personal contact with the priest there. He never returned my calls.
Then, I tried the ROCOR parish in Richmond, Maine. Used to be White Russian. Now it’s a dozen old Russian ladies in pearls and finery sitting in back, and a few dozen converts standing in a candle lit church, most of whom travel hours to be there. From as far as Vermont (“the GOA parish down the road from us is just like a Catholic one, so we come here..” etc.) The Russians were dressed like Park Avenue dowagers, the Americans were all trying to pretend they were kulaks circa 1905 or something. Basically only the old ladies and some children received, maybe a quarter of those present, because father required attendance at Saturday vespers and confession prior every reception, and most of the congregation couldn’t make it.
Stank like Jansenism, or whatever you call its rigorist analogue in Greek. I was not impressed, at all.
I talked to the priest (another convert) after two liturgies. He discovered I’d been received by charismation, not baptism. I got the strong impression he didn’t want to have anything to do with me. He also never took or returned my calls. I guess I’m annoying, but one thing I can say of my OCA and Catholic pastors is that they or a secretary tend to return phone calls.
The upshot it seemed that canonically ROCOR and the OCA are apparently on somewhat different pages, I guess.
Incidentally, I was still frequently going to mass back home and not receiving, in lieu of traveling the prohibitive 2-3 hours to liturgy every weekend, and that was torturous.
I finally got a chance to visit Army friends down in DC, and went to liturgy at a Serbian parish there. We sneered at the charismatic Catholics who had a guitar mass in the rented church hall before liturgy. I went to confession withe priest, a kind old fellow who’d been Fr. Hopko’s room mate in seminary. I confessed, he looked at me, and said “look son, that [certain sexual matter] is not a sin.” I looked at him, astonished. That’s a line I’d become used to from an occasional flapdoodle Catholic confessor, and I would always get angry thinking “it’s listed as such in the Catechism, and it’s my conscience and confession here padre, and most saints in the canon would think it is, so unless you think there’s some impediment please give me absolution, and cut the grief.”
But there I was defeated. I received absolution, went to the coffee hour where Magda, this nice Serbian woman, told me how she was going to find me a good Serbian girl, and how the Orthodox needed shorter services, and you know “a council to modernize the church like Vatican II.”
My friends thought this was hilarious, Those damned ethnics are so wishy washy, you know?
I got in my car, and drove home to Maine. I was in anguish. On the way by Worchester, MA I got off and made a visit to the home of Little Audrey [http://www.littleaudreysanto.org] whom I ‘d always meant to visit, but never yet had. She was still alive then.
I went to mass in the chapel there, where everything is mysteriously oozing oil. There was this crapulous 80 some year old Flemish priest there, accompanied by his niece and nephew, whom he roundly abused while they translated his homily for him. He was there to ask Audrey’s intercession for vocations in Belgium, where there hadn’t been a seminarian ordained in several years. There was another old American priest there concelebrating, and may 20 other people crammed into that little chapel full of oily religious kitsch.
After mass, I asked to confess. I made an anguished admission of my act of schism. I thought the priest would react, have some particular counsel of what I needed to do to set myself right. He just looked at me, and asked if I prayed daily. I said I did. He said, “Good. You wouldn’t forget to eat would you?” I looked at him, half tempted to think him a simpleton, when I realized what a total and complete jerk I’d been, and was. I started to cry. I went outside, and the old Flemish priest came up to me. He asked me if he could bless me. I said of course. He blessed me with a prayer to Our Lady of Fatima. I was a complete mess, but somehow at that moment I knew that everything was going to be okay.
My Orthodox friends were all scandalized by what I did. At first, I wasn’t sure that it was wise. I mean, it’s pretty darn obvious I’m not wise, but you know what I mean. I’d always told them I wasn’t leaving the Catholic Church by becoming Orthodox, only undoing the Schism in myself and rejecting the historical distortion of papal supremacy. The Orthodox Church has to be the Catholic Church, or else it isn’t the Church at all. Father K always smiled and humored me when I said stuff like that. He probably shouldn’t have.
I just went back to mass, and shut up. I had to stop judging everything (“On Eagles Wings” again? Holy..) and just accept it all in humility. The Church ladies, who are very obviously holier than I, like the kitsch. Who am I to judge them for it? A total freaking ass, is who. So I just decided that I was going to take it all. Then, I decided I was going to like it all again.
And very slowly, I have begun to.. Again.
So, what does all this have to do with your query, as to weather enchantment is possible, living in this supposedly secular age of ours?
it’s just to say that my life is this crazy, beautiful love story. That in spite – no. Because of it all, I am in love. I think I have a pretty good intellectual apologetic for my faith. I often wish I could have a go at Dawkins, and ask him what his personhood is based on? How he believes he even exists if he is without any transcendence? If he is merely energy that dissipates at death, then why does he believe in himself at all? Because if he doesn’t transcend then it seems as if “he” doesn’t really exist at all..
And that is an absurd idea, isn’t it? I mean, because honestly, Rod, believing in Richard Dawkins is as much an act of faith, and article of the Faith, as my believing in God. Descartes is right, you know, in the sense that we cannot prove anything beyond the sensation of our consciousness. That’s all I have, anyway.
I *have* to believe. I would be insane if I didn’t.
So in this essential way I know it’s all true. I go to mass, and it is mystical. It wrecks me, having so great a love as this in my life. In my heart.
And just so you know, I’m convinced we’re communing at the same chalice, Rod. One cup, one body, one Church, one Faith, One God. There is no division in Him. By our baptism, in the eucharist, we are one. The schism is just politics and lack of charity. If they wanted to they could have a council to deal with it next month. It’s pride and vanity that keeps them from it. They like their dissension. I no longer have energy or time for it.
So the enchantment is real, because the Faith is a great romance that we share. This great hope. That’s it.

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