In March 1946, about a month after my birth, a priest baptized me by immersion in water at the Holy Resurrection Orthodox Church in Warren, Ohio. During the ceremony, he placed a silver chain with the three-bar Eastern Orthodox cross (St. Andrew’s cross), provided by my parents, around my neck.
Though many traditions explain its symbolism, I was taught the third bar of the St. Andrew’s cross shows the balance between the good thief, St. Dismas, and the bad thief, Gesmas, who died with Jesus Christ. Its left side slants upward, indicating that St. Dismas ascended into Heaven after he obtained his salvation with God. The right end tilts downward and symbolizes that God thrust Gesmas into Hell after he cursed Him. According to my studies, this bar indicates where Jesus’ feet were affixed. Because the cross was blessed, I felt safer wearing it. Whenever I experienced fear, worry, or aloneness, I touched it to remind me of who I am and of the One above me.
In September 1965, I was drafted into the U.S. Army. Three months later I headed to Basic Training. Afterwards, I completed advanced schooling in Virginia and then served in Germany. In April 1967, I volunteered for duty in Vietnam. As always, I wore my cross every day. Less than a year later, when time allowed, I left base camp in Vietnam and traveled to the Military Advisory Group’s compound. Mr. White, a USAID worker, supervised a refugee hospital there and frequently ran out of medical supplies. In order to help, I hustled whatever he needed from my company, the area hospital, and various dispensaries.
In addition, the refugee hospital needed maintenance. The windows lacked screens and not enough beds were available. Richard, another medic like me, and a few other fellow soldiers helped me locate the needed concrete blocks, lumber, and other building supplies. Sometimes, we stole materials from the Air Force base or bribed someone. When we drove up with our trucks loaded with all of his needs and wants, Mr. White’s eyes filled with tears of gratitude. With our ill-gotten materials, we remodeled the decaying building.
One day, after hours working on the hospital, we were returning to base camp when the radio sounded an alert for all soldiers to vacate the roadways and return to their bases. While our jeep was going full speed in the Tuy Hoa area, we observed rockets and mortars being launched on a small village. The incursion ceased when we were opposite the village. Wounded civilians were lying on the ground. For a second, we thought we should get home but decided to pull over and help. I jumped out of the jeep and went to aid a 12-year-old Vietnamese girl, who sustained shoulder and chest injuries from shrapnel. Leaning over to clean and suture her wounds, my cross hung down from my neck. She reached up and began playing with it. Suddenly, she broke the chain and held it in a death grip. Her father, who was standing next to her, asked me if I was a Catholic bacsi mop, which means “Catholic big doctor” in English. I guess he saw the cross and thought I was Catholic. I attempted to explain. “No, I am Eastern Orthodox.” The Buddhist man probably did not understand what I was saying though I repeated myself a couple of times. The girl’s family just stared at me. Not one of my finest moments. After wrapping the young girl’s wounds, I asked God to heal and protect her. I then turned her over to the Vietnamese medics, who carried her away. I wanted my cross, still tightly gripped in her hand, but what could I do? There was no way I could ask for it back. She was relocated to another area, and I never saw her again. However, a few weeks later I heard from one of our Vietnamese workers that she was doing well. He said the family wanted to thank me. In 2001 Metropolitan Kirill, now the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, and his team visited Vietnam on a fact- finding mission and met with a Russian-speaking community. A year later they created a parish in Vung Tau called Our Lady of Kazan, bringing their Eastern Orthodox crosses with them. After I lost my cross, my mother replaced it with a round sterling silver Orthodox medal on a silver chain, belonging to our family for decades. The front of the medal shows a depiction of an early sixth century painting which illustrates Christ Pantokrator, right hand raised in blessing, His left holding the New Testament. A cruciform halo surrounds the head; Greek letters on either side spell out His name. The etching on the back proclaims “I am an Orthodox Christian.” Though I value the medal, at times I think about my St. Andrew’s cross and the wounded 12-year-old Vietnamese girl who pulled it from my neck. I wonder if she still owns it. If so, does she feel safer? Does it remind her of who she is? Or did someone sell it for the silver? I prefer to believe the former; God knows for sure. By John Trotogott
Dan Monroe's Story
The odd thing about my Protestant/Fundamentalist life is how I kept bumping into Orthodoxy since my childhood in Portland. If my life were a detective novel, a reader might admire how the main character was delicately led towards Orthodoxy by clues disclosed in a long series of seeming accidents and (as Bert would say) fortuitous circumstances—a Romanian Orthodox church in Portland, some outstanding Russian composers in Dad’s “Great Music of the World” collection, a certain well-placed Catholic church in Salem etc. While no one fact or incident was a game-changer, taken as a whole they persuaded me that I did not have a picture of salvation.
Once I accepted this, I explored Protestantism and Catholicism in an attempt to find that picture. Although I had come across Orthodoxy, the very poverty of evidence for it spoke loudly against it. The Protestants and Catholics were simply leagues ahead of the Orthodox in marketing. It would be many years later that I would discover the lives of Orthodox saints, the writings of Orthodox fathers and the instructions of Orthodox elders—any considerable fraction of which would have revealed the spiritual desolation of Catholicism. There is no question in my mind that the life of a single Optina elder would have steered me straight to Orthodoxy, if not to monasticism.
The abject state of Orthodox literature in English both then and now is most strikingly revealed by the fact that most Orthodox authors whom I have read seemed not to know or think it worth mentioning that Pope Honorius had been anathematized in 681 for monotheletism, that this condemnation was pronounced with the concurrence of his successor, Pope St. Agatho, and that his successors renewed his condemnation for about four centuries when they entered into their office. It is highly probable that if these bitter facts had been in my possession, I would not have become Catholic, since it was the popes themselves who renounced papal infallibility. However, since such an avalanche of historical and spiritual evidence for Orthodoxy would have prevented me from marrying the woman who is my wife, I may well be grateful that I joined the Catholic church for a five-year Roman holiday.
After becoming interested in Oriental religions by a chance encounter overseas, I completed a degree in religious studies at the University of Oregon; my aim was to connect Oriental religions to Christianity through Gnosticism. There is no question that I graduated as one of the very few liberal Catholics who arrived at patristics via Buddhism and Hinduism. I then headed to the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., for graduate studies. I thought I would uncover all the evidence for papal infallibility which my brilliant Protestant professor had (I supposed) withheld from us. I spent a good deal of time using a wonderful Catholic library to find absolutely nothing to support that claim. At the same time, I was learning to my horror that most Catholic churches were renouncing centuries of tradition to champion weekly episodes of liturgical lunacy; perhaps my most poignant memory was the Jazz Pentecost mass. In those dark days, I became friends with an Orthodox acquaintance at school who accidentally joined the same program as myself in the same year on the same scholarship. I must thank my learned friend, Jeffrey MacDonald, for patiently reeling me in.
When my wife, Caroline, and I finally decided to visit an Orthodox church, we settled on a Greek church which we could reach by bus. Fate struck again. I had made contacts in Eugene, Oregon, among the Orthodox—Richard and Melita Green. Through them I met Fr. Basil Summer when he was visiting them in Eugene. Although I teased him a good deal and horrified him with my inter-faith cynicism, I really liked him; we stayed in touch. His parish was in Bethesda, Maryland. It was of course a coincidence that Catholic University of America was in the general vicinity.When I told him of our plans to visit a church, he vigorously insisted that we visit his church. I replied that we did not have a car. He vowed he would hire a cab to drive us there and back if need be. In fact, he found a parishioner who lived near us who could shuttle us back and forth. Words cannot express how touched we were by his concern for our salvation and the fidelity and cheerfulness with which Marion Barber executed her Christian duty, for which God bless her richly. By the long-suffering benevolence of God, Caroline and I became Orthodox in 1988 at St. Mark’s Orthodox Church. I thought that our long adventure to the faith ended the story, but it turned out that everything was just a bit of prologue, for Orthodoxy is the unending story.
Caroline Monroe's Story
I grew up in a Catholic family in Singapore. My mother told me that the Catholic church was the oldest and largest church in the world and that the many Protestant churches were heretical because they had split from the Catholic church. At the age of 19, I came to America to go to college in Oregon, and there I met my future husband, Daniel, who was also Catholic. I was introduced to the Orthodox church when I met his friends, Melita and Richard Green, who are Greek Orthodox. Daniel and I didn’t think too much about the Orthodox until after we were married and had moved to Maryland. The Greens were friends of Fr. Basil Summer, whose OCA church, St. Mark’s, was in Bethesda, Maryland. As Daniel has already detailed how Fr. Basil persuaded us to attend his church, I will simply say that the first time I went, I was immediately impressed by the beauty of the liturgical music. There was nothing like it in the Catholic church. Encouraged by the warm welcome from the congregation, we started learning more about Orthodoxy and soon became catechumens.
Catholicism and Orthodoxy have many things in common, so my journey to Orthodoxy was not too discomforting. Once I learned that the Catholics and Orthodox had been united until the Great Schism in the 11th century, and that it was the Catholics who broke away—not the other way around—I realized that the Orthodox church was the one true church that had not changed for centuries. I learned that the Catholics had invented several doctrines after the Schism that were big departures from Holy Tradition, e.g., papal infallibility and the immaculate conception. The Catholics also changed the way the Creed was said. The original Creed says the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father, so the three persons of the Holy Trinity are equal. The Catholics added “from the Father and the Son” (the filioque), which created an imbalance in our conception of the three persons of the Trinity. I had never questioned Catholic doctrine in the past but now I realized how wrong some of them were.
Making the intellectual leap to Orthodoxy was just the beginning of my “journey to fullness,” as Fr. Barnabas Powell likes to say. What is more challenging is living the Orthodox way of life. Being Orthodox means working on one’s salvation daily because salvation is not a one-time event as it is in many Protestant churches. One has to continually cultivate the virtues, particularly humility, pray often and partake of the Eucharist regularly. The lives of the saints provide us with shining examples of how to live Orthodoxy and to attain the ultimate goal—the kingdom of Heaven.