A few years ago His Grace Bishop ALEXANDER asked me why, as a young Protestant minister, I would seek entrance into the Holy Orthodox Church. My answer was singular: “Truth.” With the Christocentricism so characteristic of Holy Orthodoxy His Grace quickly responded, “Jesus Christ is Truth.” In the months, and now years, that have followed this exchange, I have wrestled to understand the meaning of my conversion from and development within Protestantism. Time and again such meditation brings me to ponder St. Luke’s description of St. Apollos. He writes:
Now a certain Jew named Apollos, born at Alexandria, an eloquent man and mighty in the Scriptures, came to Ephesus. This man had been instructed in the way of the Lord; and being fervent in spirit, he spoke and taught accurately the things of the Lord, though he knew only the baptism of John. So he began to speak boldly in the synagogue. When Aquila and Priscilla heard him, they took him aside and explained to him the way of God more accurately.(1)
I pray that the following reflection on my own journey into Truth, prepared at the behest of my spiritual father, the Very Reverend Fr. Iskander Younes, despite its poor composition will be encouraging to those who by grace are coming “to the knowledge of the Truth”(2) – whether ‘cradle’ or ‘convert’.
Family Heritage: Mighty in the Scriptures
Whereas St. Apollos was an Egyptian Jew who immigrated to Greece, I was born in Toronto to Tamil parents who had left their native Ceylon for further studies. Both my father and mother were raised in devout Protestant Christian families that were ‘mighty in the Scriptures.’ My paternal great-grandfather was a prominent attorney in Colombo, Ceylon’s capital, who abandoned a lucrative career for the toil of Priesthood in the Church of South India.(3) Upon hearing of his intentions, one of the country’s high court judges remarked, “You are leaving the sublime, for the ridiculous.” My maternal grandfather, similarly, left a successful accounting career to serve as a Priest within the Anglican Communion in Colombo. I recount this heritage as it underscores the living faith in the Lord Jesus Christ that my family maintained and I was fortunate to adopt. St. Paul writes to the young Timothy, “I call to remembrance the genuine faith that is in you, which dwelt first in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice, and I am persuaded is in you also.”(4) Thus, my godly parents, Roshan and Evangeline, following in the tradition of their parents, instilled in me from my earliest years a practice of daily studying and meditating on the Holy Scriptures. This I count as the greatest of my parents’ many gifts. As St. Paul wrote:
But you must continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.(5)
For me, the Scriptures were and continue to be a means of encountering Truth. Yet, I was hungry for a more mystical and experiential participation in the Divine. As the Lord Jesus said to the Pharisees, “You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me … come to Me that you may have life.”(6)
Seminary: Instructed in the Way of the Lord
Throughout my high school years, I devoured Protestant works on practical Christianity, especially as it concerned spiritual devotion, evangelistic mission and social outreach. The works of such greats as John Wesley, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and A.W. Tozer would play a formative role in my spiritual and theological development and unbeknownst to me laid the groundwork for my ready embrace of the Orthodox doctrine of theosis. Later, while working on an undergraduate degree at the Schulich School of Business, I enrolled at the University of Toronto’s Wycliffe College (the Toronto School of Theology’s Evangelical-Anglican institution) and began formal theological training in their Masters of Divinity program. It was here, exposed to such works as Bishop Lesslie Newbigin’s Household of God(7), that I began to think seriously of the fragmenting state of modern Protestantism with its 30,000 denominations and the need for an authentic ecclesiology.
Evangelistic Mission: Spoke & Taught the Things of the Lord
Following summer ministry internships in West Virginia, California and South East Asia, I founded 1 Life Church, a federally incorporated charity whose vision would be to “change a generation, one life at a time.” Under an advisory board comprised of Protestant ministers from a variety of Evangelical denominations(8), I began a mission of reaching ‘at-risk’ youth and spiritually-hungry university students with the ‘essentials’ of the Gospel, namely Jesus Christ and Him Crucified for the salvation of the world. The evangelistic mission began small, but within a year we had the privilege of witnessing several ‘unchurched’ people embrace what C.S. Lewis would likely term ‘Mere Christianity.’ It was here, working with newcomers to the Gospel that I began to re-think the Reformation’s emphases of sola fide, sola scriptura and the resultant rejection of the Sacraments.
Professor Schneider: More Adequate Explanation
The issues, principally ecclesiological and sacramental, which I had begun to grapple with in my seminary study and practical evangelistic/pastoral work, began to haunt my earlier contentedness within Protestantism. It was not, however, until studying Church History under Professor Richard Schneider - the President of the Canadian Council of Churches, an adjunct professor at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in New York and a convert himself – that I would have a real reason to re-examine my relationship with Truth. Professor Schneider invited us students to study the ‘primary sources’ of the first millennium in a critical, objective and unbiased manner. It was there, in a secular institution and free from denominational rhetoric, that I first encountered the Church Fathers. While I had a thorough knowledge of the Holy Scriptures as well as Church history post-Reformation, I had virtually no knowledge of the patristic writings. Wrestling through the practical application of the Holy Scriptures in the post-modern context as necessitated in a mission community while confronting the increasing theological and moral laxity of my Anglican seminary, the writings of the Church Fathers seemed to encapsulate all I unconsciously knew to be right but had hitherto been unable to express or formulate. They were for me an experience of Truth. Yet, while there was a strange theological familiarity with the Fathers, there was still much that was new and different. Protestantism had presented Jesus Christ as Truth, but had failed to convey the ‘whole Truth and nothing but the Truth’.
The ‘wholeness’ I found in the Fathers was, for me, predominantly in their ecclesiological and sacramental clarity. Two patristic emphases in particular that would eventually drive me towards Holy Orthodoxy were the Father’s stance on Apostolic Succession and the Holy Eucharist. Truth was Incarnate and had a Body. As such believing the Gospel was only the first step. One had to become a member of the Church and participate in its divine-human character. My study under Professor Schneider became catechetical (I took two semesters of one-on-one study exploring writings of the Fathers) and I began to be convinced of my status as one striving to be a Christian outside the Church! While many questions were yet to be answered, I had become convinced that the Holy Orthodox Church was the “pillar and ground of the Truth”(9) and accordingly I was conscience-bound to seek Chrismation.
The Antiochian Archdiocese: Received by the Disciples
At this point, my knowledge of Holy Orthodoxy was purely theoretical. I had heard of the Very Reverent Fr. Peter Gillquist, an Orthodox Priest in California who had made a similar journey some decades before and so I called the Antiochian Archdiocese. Referred to Fr. Iskander in Richmond Hill, I made a fearful trip to visit him. I did not know what to expect and was afraid that the Truth I had seen embodied in writings the Church Fathers would be no longer present in today’s Church. I recall fondly my first encounter with Fr. Iskander. His initial words still remain with me: “There are two things you need in Orthodoxy: humility and obedience.” I would later have the chance to spend time with the Very Reverend Frs. Peter Gilquist and Gordon Walker. Their sincerity, zeal and kindness together with that of Fr. Iskander left a strong impression on me and assured me that the clergy were still, under His Emminence Metropolitan PHILIP and His Grace Bishop ALEXANDER, “rightly dividing the word of truth.”(10)
*The Voice of St. George, Spring 2008, Issue 10. A publication of St. George Antiochian Church, Richmond Hill, Ontario.
A year or so later I was Chrismated with my family and cousin who had been instrumental in the development of 1 Life Church. The wonder of my reception into Truth’s Body, however, did not strike me until the coming Lord’s Day, when I had the privilege of serving as an Acolyte in the Altar. I remember standing watching the priests, the chalice and icons of the Church Fathers as the Deacon chanted the litanies. Here was St. Ignatius of Antioch, here was St. John Chrysostom, here was St. Basil the Great! I was with the Fathers! I was in the Church! I was in Truth!
And yet, as my reception into the Holy Orthodox Church is an end in one sense, I know that it is also a beginning. I pray that like St. Apollos, God may be willing to use this unworthy vessel for the good of His People, and may bring me to an ever-deeper knowing of Himself. In the words of the Blessed Seraphim Rose:
Without truth there is no Christianity, and without knowledge of Christian truth one cannot be a Christian … The Christian desires to be one with the Truth, Who is Christ Jesus; and so the Christian is what he knows. He who rejects Christ does not know Him; he who accepts Him but does not live the fully Christian life, does not know Him fully. Only the deified man knows fully–as fully as man may know; the rest of us are merely striving to be Christians, that is, knowers.(11)
(1) Acts of the Apostles 18:24-26
(3) St. Thomas the Apostle brought the Gospel to South India and an Oriental Orthodox Church, under the Patriachate of Antioch, has existed there since the first century. The Church of South India, however, is the result of a union of various Protestant denominations in the region including the Anglicans, Methodists and Presbyterians.
(7) Bishop Newbigin, an Englishman, was a Presbyterian theologian heavily involved in missiology and ecumenism who served for many years within the Church of South India.
(8) A ‘pan-Evangelical’ group if the term can be so used. The board included ministers from the Southern Baptist Convention, Christian Missionary & Alliance, and Vineyard Christian Fellowship.
(11) Blessed Seraphim Rose, Philosophical Journal of Eugene Rose (1960-1962)