From the time that I stopped meeting with Fr. Harrington to my conversion experience, it took me a while to get around to thinking about conversion again. I was going to college at that time and I did not enjoy the experience. Quite frankly, I felt very lonely and extremely depressed. It was also a time when I questioned deeply everything that I had been brought up to believe as well as the culture that I had been brought up in.
It was during my high school years that I had started attending a Sunday evening study at my parish priest’s house. We read through all kinds of works and then discussed them. It was around this period of time that we started to read a book about the Orthodox understanding of the after life. For those of you that may not know this, the Orthodox Church does not believe that there is such a place as Purgatory. Rather, one either goes to heaven or to hell with no place in between.
For a long time, the thought of dying and being damned was something that haunted me. I couldn’t understand why a loving and merciful God would not have a place reserved for those that needed purification before they went to Heaven. I also didn’t understand why one should pray for the dead if they are not in a place where there is no spiritual progress. To me, hell means the end of absolutely everything. You can’t progress from hell to heaven. Once a soul ends up there, it’s there for an eternity. Therefore, there had to be some place in the middle or, at least something.
At the same time, however, I knew and understood that I could not voice my opinions because I had once been a virulent opponent of Catholicism. Indeed, I found myself in a position where I could speak about what the Catholic Church was and what it taught and how it was different from Orthodoxy. I suppose it was because of what I went through in high school, but I can’t imagine it now. In fact, it was my own attacks against Catholicism that convinced me that it was the truth Christian church.
It was also at this time in college that there were other temptations as well. The college that I attended had numerous Christian clubs. For a state with the lowest church attendance in the West, it was downright surprising to me that we would have preachers there. For the most part, the Christians that I met on campus were good people who were interested in fellowship. Yet the question would always come up of whether or not I was saved. I hated that question because the answer was and is glaringly obvious.
You see, Protestants believe that salvation is a one-time event after you acknowledge God as your person Savior. For Catholics and the Orthodox, salvation means something completely different. The answer is that we are saved, but that we are in the process of being saved by our works and our faith. Faith and works are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they work together. No wonder why Martin Luther took out the Epistle of St. James from the Bible.
As much as I would try to explain my position to my Protestant colleagues, it became increasingly clear to me that I was not capable of debating with them. My incapacity came from the fact that I didn’t really know my Orthodox faith well enough to be able to defend it against all comers. There was also the fact that I had an extremely sketchy knowledge of the Bible. Part of this was because I had only read certain parts of the Bible and never the entire book. To this day, this is a problem for me. Indeed, I can quote the Bible but I don’t know where the quote comes from.
Yet the Protestants and my nagging idea about the after life were not the only things that were going on. As I said before, I was feeling extremely depressed at this time. Every winter for years on end, I would be in an existential slump. There were times when I would be suicidal and times when I felt that I was completely abandoned by everything and everybody. At this time in my life, I started going to see therapists at the college’s counseling center. I felt that it was a way for me to release my emotions in an environment that was non-judgmental and to people that couldn’t judge my life. In a way, it was like going to Confession and telling the priest where you tripped up in the course of your spiritual journey.
Yet I felt that no therapist could give me peace. Yes, they gave me helpful techniques to deal with other people and myself, but these techniques were only that. Reflecting it on it now, I think that there was more to my existential crisis than just feeling empty or lonely. I was truly searching for something or Someone that would satisfy my yearnings.
It was also a time for me to question who I was. I asked myself questions that I could not answer and every question added another one. I felt that I was in an never ending cycle. Also, it was simply impossible for me to find a sympathetic ear. When I did find one, I was always told to talk to a specialist or I was disciplined by the college for airing my dirty laundry to a friend. I was also accused of anti-social behavior. Of all the people that I know, I’m not anti-social in the least. It’s just that there were some inter-cultural misunderstandings.
At this time, however, I also started to read about the Catholic Church. Providentially, my father worked at a place that had once been a thriving Catholic college. The sisters had left most of their library there including their theology books. It was from this library that I started to read books such as the encyclicals of the Popes and the writings of the Church Fathers.
It was while reading the encyclicals of the Popes that I realized that they spoke with the same authority as Christ Himself. On every imaginable topic, they managed to offer some kind of solution that would be feasible for the ordinary Catholic. I had never encountered something like this before because the Orthodox Church has no such thing as a leading authority. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, who holds a similar place to the Pope, is viewed as a primus inter pares. The patriarchs of the individual national churches make their decisions as a group in a college. Yet there is no such thing as a real leader. Everyone works together.
Yet there were other things that I discovered around this time that also helped me to decide to dedicate myself to the Catholic Church, but those will have to wait for another chapter.