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Spotlight: Reflection On the First Week of the St. Stephen's Program

By Cindy George

When I was asked to say something about our work in the St. Stephen’s Program of the Antiochian House of Studies, words from St. Paul’s Letter to Romans came to mind. In Chapter 12, Verse 2, St. Paul encourages us and the Romans to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. This describes what the St. Stephen’s journey has been for me.

After spending my life worshipping in Protestant churches, running in Protestant circles, participating in the mission field with my Protestant friends here and abroad, and educating my mind with Protestant doctrine in Protestant universities, you can imagine my astonishment when God called me completely out of my comfort zone to enter the Orthodox Church. I did not come gracefully.

My story is not one told by many who have been blessed to walk through the doors of an Orthodox Church to the sound of chanting, to the smell of incense, the beauty of the icons, the reverence and holiness of the Liturgy, ones who knew immediately that they were in the presence of the True God. I came kicking, screaming, crying and protesting; questioning every little thing. I asked: Why does everything have to be sung? Why does the priest dress like that? Who are those people lighting candles and kissing paintings? Why do they kiss a cross? Why is the priest lifting up the bread? Why do you have bread in Church anyway? How can you honestly believe that the bread and wine magically turn into the Christ’s body and blood?

My friends, thank you for your patience with me. Thank you for being the Church even when I was unable to recognize that I was finally in it! Your patience, then and into the present, with one who is stumbling wretchedly on the path of theosis has been an incarnation for me of 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak in tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I am nothing. Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

The Church is first and foremost – love. It is love incarnate. So allow me to adapt this just a little, to express a few truths that have occurred to me.

If I know the eight tones and all their variations and I understand in depth the canons and the opinions expressed by Balsam and Zonaras, but have not allowed this to affect my life, I am merely a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 

If I memorize the decisions of all the councils and know the dates they were held and the heresies they addressed, and if I comprehend the writings of the Church Fathers and Orthodox theologians, but do not let this shape my theological perspective, I am nothing.

If I start a mission, teach the youth, and evangelize my neighbor, without allowing God’s love to penetrate into the deepest parts of me, I gain nothing.

You have been patient, you have been kind. You have sought our best and edified us along the way as we have worked through mountains of information in search of Truth. You were incredibly patient with our panoply of questions. And while you actually did keep a record of wrongs, in the form of P, P+ and the dreaded P-, I am assuming you took no delight in anything less than our best.

You persevered with us . . . and we with you.

The Orthodox Church in general and the St. Stephens course in particular have guided and continue to guide my journey toward fuller communion with God, where Love is found, where the world is changed and transformed, one community and one life at a time.

So, thank you, Bishop Thomas, for overseeing this program. Your steadfast presence during our residencies made an incredible impact on the tenor of our time here. And thank you, Bishop John, who proved to us last year that you are as knowledgeable about practical matters of the priesthood as you are about apophatic theology. I actually benefited from a personal demonstration of his counseling skills, when my husband and I dealt with a mini-crisis during our second year here.

I thank you, Father Joseph Allen, for your efforts with this program and for your life-changing book, Inner Way. Our journey together is not over, as you have agreed to mentor me in my next effort. (No changing your mind now!)

Many thanks to Father Anthony Gabriel, who illustrates for us that preaching and teaching are (in his own words) an incarnation of the depth of one’s soul.

Thanks, also, to Father George Shalhoub, who speaks so eloquently about the mysteries expressed in the Church, through everything from ordination to Liturgy, but who, more importantly, embodies the call of the priesthood.

Father Ed Hughes so clearly described for us, among many other things, the history of iconoclasm and its impact on our faith as we know it today, and whose sweet and gentle spirit is a calming presence – thank you.

And who could forget Father Patrick Vicusso, who makes what is for me, at least, an incredibly tedious topic almost exciting, and who helped shape my vision regarding the time spent here when he referred to these weeks as “Orthodox Boot Camp”? This concept of Boot Camp reminds me that this course is only the beginning of my learning.

I must thank, too, Fr. Michel Najim, who this week became the incarnation behind the grade and the nearly illegible comments on many of my papers.

And you, Father Michael Keiser, brought to mind one of my favorite behaviors from my former faith, when several times during your talks I wanted to shout, “Preach it, brother!” You also gave me a new perspective on coffee hour.

Deacon Peter, thank you for your patience and facilitation of our completion of this program, as well as the occasional laugh-out-loud e-mails.

And Sherry – talk about perseverance. Your commitment to us and to the St. Stephen’s program apparently knows no bounds, as I seem to recall that you quite literally gave me the “shirt off your back” when I had brought nothing to wear for a formal evening in first year.

I thank Father Elias Bitar, whom I love, but if I never participate in another chanting class, that would be OK with me. Thank you for helping me realize that God and His presence in His Church and throughout this course, is the ison of my life.

And even though they are not here this week, I would like to recall and thank Father David Hester, who gave such wonderful volumes of information about Church history and the lives of some of our saints; Father Joseph Purpura, who guided and facilitated our discussions about difficult and relevant topics, and Bishop Michael, who, among other things, brought studying the Bible to life.

I would like to pause to remember Fr. Peter Gillquist, may his memory be eternal. Fr. Peter was, for me, where East met West, and his influence in my life changed me forever.

I now know more about God than I ever before knew was possible. And I know only in part; I know that God is invisible...yet everywhere seen; inexpressible...yet audible in a bird's voice, a child's song, and a babbling creek...He is ever-existing...yet forever shaping me...eternally the same, never tiring of drawing His Bride to Himself.

My journey into Orthodoxy and in particular these last three years, have enabled me to loosen my grip (just a little) on this world and to allow myself to be transformed by the renewing of my mind. The more I learn about this ancient faith, the more I travel the road of theosis with you – my fellow sojourners, the more the God without awakens the God within, the more I am able to appreciate and experience the truth of one of my favorite sayings from Saint Irenaus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.”

Originally published in the February 2013 issue of The Word.