“Are we really going to do this?”
Those were the words I greeted by dear wife with upon waking in our hotel room on February 15, 1998. We were in Columbia, SC, for the purpose of being received into the Orthodox Church by Father Peter Smith (then Rector of Holy Apostles in Columbia). Along with us were our four children, the oldest being 17 and the youngest age 7. This day that we had discussed and fantasized about for the whole of that decade was now upon us.
I had left the Episcopal Church; formally and voluntarily renounced my holy orders (it seemed the gentleman’s way of leaving) accepted a job as a Hospice Chaplain, and were now to be received into the Church. The week before was my last Sunday as an Episcopal priest. I had said my last Mass, preached my farewell sermon, and cried with many friends whom I knew I would be leaving.
As for catechumenate: my spiritual father later told me that it would have been better had we spent a few months as catechumens before being received into the Church. But such was not the case. The directive from the Archbishop to Father Peter was: “Chrismate them now. They’ve waited long enough!” Added to that was his request that I immediately accept the position as lay pastor for the newly founded OCA mission in the Knoxville, TN area. I had no idea what I was saying yes to. Nor have I ever looked back.
My wife’s answer that Sunday morning (accompanied by a groan) was, “Yes, we’re really going to do this.” As if I thought there could be any other answer. Given what I’ve seen since, I am deeply grateful that we were actually intact as a family, all reasonably healthy (no bugs, no infections) and together in Columbia for the day.
We were received. When our youngest, Clare, read the oath, “This true faith of the Orthodox Church, which I now voluntarily confess and truly hold, that same I will firmly maintain and confess, whole and unchanged, even until my last breath, God helping me. And I will teach and proclaim it, insofar as I am able. And I will strive to fulfill its obligations with zeal and joy, preserving my heart in good deeds and blamelessness. In witness of this, my true and pure-hearted confession, I kiss the Word and Cross of my Savior. Amen,” her voice rang clear and pure. She was a good reader and did not stumble in the least – either over the difficulty of some words, much less the boldness of what she was saying. You could hear the echo of the many child martyrs the Church has known through the ages. Somehow all of us felt embarrassed by the purity and sincerity of her words – purity that older men and women rarely have any longer.
I was overwhelmed by the day and in many ways still feel overwhelmed. The 17 and 15 year olds are now married to priests, and will put their oath to the test far more than they could have imagined on that day.
The child of 7 is now 16, driving her own car, but it’s in the parking lot of the Church every Sunday and a number of other times. She knows who she is and what she promised.
And I am now a man heading to his mid-fifties. I have a congregation and a parish I could not have imagined on that day.
None of us can know the fullness of what we promise as we say, “Yes!” to God and to His Church. But what I know for a truth is that the fullness that is given to us is nothing less than God Himself. That is both staggering and renewing. To this day I feel like David in King Saul’s armor: far too small for the task set before me.
Tomorrow I will take my place and Baptize and Chrismate others. None of them can know yet the fullness that lies before them, because there are not words to describe it. But I know it to be the fullness that “filleth all in all.” My prayer is that God keep safe all the catechumens around the globe this week. Preserve them from harm, from doubt, from fear or alarm. Coming home is not a fearful thing – it is the thing we were all created for.
So that Sunday morning in 1998, I did what my wife told me: I got out of bed, put on my pants and shirt and headed home to Church.