Saturday, June 25, 2016

The Way of a Pilgrim: Reflection on my Greek Orthodox Roots and Quakerism

I am grateful to my parents, and to God, that I was baptized into the Greek Orthodox faith. I wasn’t always grateful, however. When I was several months old, my parents took me to St George’s Orthodox Church in Trenton, NJ. There a strange man in a dark robe with a white beard stripped off my clothes, plunged me naked under water, and I gasped for air and screamed. Since then, I have attended such “sacraments” several times and am familiar with the routine, which takes nearly an hour. First, the priest exorcizes any demons that might have entered the church to thwart the baby’s salvation. Then he recites liturgies in Greek that go back to the early days of Christianity. After being prayed over and dunked, the child is given a fresh set of white clothing, declared a Christian and confirmed as a Greek. My family celebrated this rite of passage with a huge party.
In my childhood I attended a number of Orthodox celebrations—mostly weddings and what we called “Christenings”. Orthodox rituals and art are inexpressibly beautiful and have lingered in my soul, but were largely meaningless to me as a child growing up since I didn’t speak Greek.
My Scottish mother took me to the Episcopalian Church which also had a lot of rituals, but at least provided me with some grounding in Christianity through Sunday school classes where we heard bible stories in a language I could understand. My mother liked to tell the story that when I came to the Episcopalian church as a preschooler, and was introduced to the priest, I said emphatically, “He’s not a priest.” My mother and priest were surprised by my strong reaction, and asked me why I didn’t believe he was a priest. I replied, “He doesn’t have yenyas,” “Yenyas” was my way of saying the Greek word for beard (γενειάδα). From this story, I conclude that even at an early age, I had strong opinions, which were not always correct.
By age 12 or so, I had begun to read voraciously and to think critically, and was not impressed with the history of the church. I read about schisms and Crusades and inquisitions and religious wars and witch hunts, and decided that the church was part of humanity’s problem, not the solution. I found Marx and socialism much more appealing than Christianity, even though the history of Communism also has its dark side.
I stopped going to church, but I still had a yearning for some kind of religious experience. In my high school and college years, I turned to psychedelic drugs, which seemed to expand my consciousness but ultimately led me down a dark alley of drug abuse and despair.
 It was after college that I had a truly transformative religious experience. After graduating from Boston University, where I studied poetry with Anne Sexton and aspired to be a poet, I went “on the road,” travelled across Canada by rail, and had a “road to Damascus” experience in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. In this low-key prairie city that was utterly different from the frantic pace of eastern cities like Boston and New York,  I felt my New England anxieties lift. Out of curiosity I entered an empty church, perused a Bible that was open on the altar, and suddenly felt the power of the Holy Spirit. My eyes welled up with tears. I realized that Jesus was more than just a teacher. His words could revolutionize the world, and my life. I experienced the Living Christ, and my life was never the same.
This happened apart from church, but a few years later, after I returned to Princeton, I became churched when I married my first wife, the daughter of a Presbyterian minister. During my graduate school days at Rutgers I attended the Presbyterian Church in Princeton, NJ, which was highly stimulating intellectual experience but not particularly spiritual. During these days, I read authors like Bonhoeffer and Tillich and engaged in intense theological discussion with my father-in-law, a brilliant professor of religion and philosophy, who drank far too much Scotch and died of alcoholism.
After earning my Ph D, I got a job teaching at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, but this professional success led to a life-changing crisis.  My marriage broke up and my mother became terminally ill and needed my help. I returned to Princeton, where I had another transformative spiritual experience. Asking for God’s help, I discovered the Quakers and once again experienced the living God through silent worship. I also became editor of an interfaith magazine called “Fellowship in Prayer” and had the opportunity to interview many religious leaders and teachers who opened my eyes and heart to many spiritual paths, including Zen Buddhism.
The Quaker experience of silent, unprogrammed is as far from Orthodox practice as can be imagined. Yet as I entered more and more deeply into Quakerism, I was led to Orthodox spirituality for the first time.
This happened around 1984 when I became involved with a Quaker peace and reconciliation project. Appalled by Reagan’s sable rattling and imminent threat of nuclear war, I was led to join a group of Quakers who were reaching out to form spiritual links with the Russian. We began working on a joint book project with the Soviets called the “Human Experience,” a collection of stories and poems about everyday life in both countries that showed we are not enemies with horns, but people with families and the desire for peace. It was during my trips to the Soviet Union that I started going to Orthodox churches and reading about Orthodox spirituality.
One work that had a profound influence on me was the Way of the Pilgrim, a classic 19th century work about a Russian seeker who wants to learn how to “pray unceasingly” and finds a teacher, a staretz or elder, who introduces him to the Jesus prayer. The pilgrim’s quest for God was similar to my “dharma bum” days after college, and the Jesus prayer was very similar to the mantras that I was learning about through my explorations of Eastern religion. I began using the Jesus prayer as a way of centering down, and letting go of the chatter in my head. I still use it from time to time and find it helpful.
As I delved more deeply into Orthodox spirituality, I found interesting parallels with Quakerism. The Orthodox have a tradition known as hesychasm, meaning inward stillness. It is based on Christ's injunction in the Gospel of Matthew that "when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray.” Hesychasm has been the process of retiring inward by ceasing to register the senses, in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God.
This is similar to our Quaker practice of worship, except that we do not seek to be silent as much as attentive to the Inward Light or Christ Spirit within us. That’s why our form of worship is sometimes called open or listening worship rather than silent worship.
I’d like to conclude by lifting up an orthodox spiritual leader who speaks to my condition, the
Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. This humble, erudite and deeply compassionate man of God has become the symbol of unity for the Orthodox Christian churches throughout the world. He is well known for his commitment to protecting the environment, and for opening communications with other Christians (especially the Roman Catholic Church) as well as with Muslims and other religious groups. 
I loved his book Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today,  which was published in 2008. (The Quakers published book with a similar title called Enlivened by the Mystery, which includes some Zen poetry I wrote.) Bartholomew’s work opened my heart and mind to the Orthodox tradition in many new ways. I was especially impressed by what he said about interfaith dialogue. I’m paraphrasing, but the gist of his message was: When we dialogue with others about the ineffable  mystery of God, we need to be utterly humble since what we know about the infinite is extremely limited. He also summed up Orthodox theology in a way that spoke to me as a Quaker. The whole purpose of theology, he said, is to bring us to such wonder at the awesomeness of God that we are silent.
I could talk at length about other experiences like going to Greece with Jill and partaking of Orthodox Easter, but Bartholomew’s call for silence seems like a good place for me to end this reflection on my Orthodox roots. I hope that during our spiritual practice time we can enter into a silence that brings us closer to each other and to the Infinite.


For our spiritual practice, I’d like us to use a variant on the Jesus prayer. This prayer is simply: “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Whether are not we believe in God, or in the concept of being a sinner, we all recognize that we are fallible human beings in need of forgiveness and compassion. So let’s direct our minds and hearts towards the God of our understanding, the Inward Light, the Inward Christ,  the Buddha nature, or however we conceive our higher power.  Let’s breathe in mercy and compassion for ourselves, and breathe out mercy towards others. I suggest we use words like “Have mercy on me.” And “Let me have mercy towards others.” If we are comfortable with the word "God" or "Christ," let's use it. And let's began and end with silence. 

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