The following has been adapted from a talk given by Ms. Natalie Stadnick, M.Div, at Atlanta’s Cathedral of the Annunciation on March 4, 2015.
My parents said, “Why would you do that? Now what are you going to do with your life? And, you’re not Greek…”
The people at work said, “Well, I know you like liturgical stuff, but the Episcopalians are liturgical, and they ordain women.”
My friends said, “What do you mean, an Orthodox Christian?”
I grew up in the Methodist Church. My family attended sporadically, but when I was 11, I got be old enough for Youth Group and I became more and more involved. I turned out to be one of the weird kids who dragged her parents out of bed on Sunday morning to go to church. They would have rather stayed home, but I needed the ride!
When I was about 12, I announced to my parents, my family, and people at church that I was going to be a United Methodist Minister. I came to that conclusion after considering three important points: I figured, I love God, I love God’s people, and I hate Math—and clergy don’t ever have to deal with Math. (Father Paul assures me that this is not true.)
It was around this time in my life when I started paying close attention to the worship services and the theology of the United Methodist Church. During my early teen years I began to feel that something was lacking, that something was missing. I realized that this feeling stemmed from the fact that the worship services were more about making me feel good than they were about anything else; the services were geared toward making the people sitting in the pews feel better about their lives—and that rubbed me wrong. Because it seemed to me then (and seems to me now) that the point of a worship service is to worship God – not to make yourself feel good.
I started reading more about theology as a high school student, and I found that I really loved the Church Fathers. I loved that they spoke so much about the Resurrection and the Incarnation, and what those things meant.
Growing up in a Protestant church, I heard often about theological concepts like atonement and about the importance of Christ’s death – how Christ’s death and His blood and His suffering “paid my sin”; which is not necessarily wrong, it’s just not the entire story. And so, I was intrigued by this new part of the story that focused on Incarnation, on God’s presence with us, and the annihilation of death!
By the time I was 18, I was the youngest certified candidate for ordained ministry in the United Methodist Church. I had gone before a Methodist bishop, I had gone before an interview board—I even had a credit check, which was kind of absurd for someone who was 18 years old and had never had a credit card. They also gave me a psychological examination (thankfully I found out I was perfectly sane!)
They gave me their stamp of approval and said, “All you have to do is get your Masters of Divinity, and you’ll be ordained.” So, I went to college in pursuit of a Bachelors degree which would allow me to apply to Master of Divinity programs.
While in college, I had more of an opportunity to study theology writings and to learn about the history of the Church. The more I learned about Orthodoxy and the more I read, the more I felt as if I were being given answers to questions I’d always had; the things that I was reading were things I had always believed but had never heard said. It was a very strange experience: to always have questions in your heart, or to always think, “The church should be a certain way,” and then to find out, you weren’t the first person to have that thought, that someone in the 4th century had answers to your heart’s questions and had thought the same thing!
I will say, though, that during those first years as a college student, my exploration of the Orthodox Church was very much on an intellectual level. I had no intention of becoming Orthodox – I simply enjoyed reading about the Church Fathers, and I wanted to bring their wisdom to the United Methodist Church.
During my Junior year in College, it was in Boston, of all places, that I actually first set foot inside an Orthodox church. Ironically, I was in Boston for a conference I’d been invited to – a conference for people my age, who had shown promise for ministry in the Protestant Church. Now, I had known about the Orthodox Church for years at that point, but I had never stepped inside one before… when I walked into that Orthodox Church and into the beginning of the Divine Liturgy, I immediately understood a story I had read only a few weeks earlier.
The story is that of Prince Vladimir, who in the 10th century sent emissaries to go explore the religions and churches he had heard of (Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Islamic) and to bring back their knowledge to him. When they returned to Prince Vladimir, they recounted their experience at the Hagia Sofia, saying: “We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth. For surely, there is no such beauty anywhere on earth. We only know God dwells there among the people, and that their services surpass the worship of other places. We cannot forget that beauty.”
When I ask myself “Why,” “Why am I Orthodox?” I find that my response is “Because it’s beautiful.” Me having become an Orthodox Christian doesn’t make sense logically.
Like I mentioned earlier, when my parents found out I had become Orthodox, their response was, “What are you go to do with your life now? You were going to be a Methodist minister; you had everything set up for you. You were totally approved. You just had to go get your degree and then you were gonna have a steady paycheck for the rest of your life, you were gonna have a housing allowance; and now you’re not Greek, but you’re Orthodox. Tell me how this makes sense!”
At this point in my story, people often ask, “Well, what have you gained by converting?” But. I think that’s the wrong question. The better question is, “Why have I stayed?” And again, the answer is, “Because it’s beautiful.”
When I first realized that my answer to these questions is “Because it’s beautiful,” I felt a bit bad about it, because it seemed to be a simplistic answer. I wanted something more profound. I was actually thinking about this answer of mine during Liturgy on Sunday – and the words that are prayed by the priest after Communion really struck me, “Sanctify those who love the beauty of your house.” I heard that, chuckled a bit, and thought, “Okay, maybe I’m not all that shallow after all.”
When something strikes us as beautiful, it’s beautiful because it’s true; it’s beautiful because it is the way it was made to be. And that is what I find in the Orthodox Church. Do I understand everything on an intellectual level? No. But I’m not supposed to understand; that’s why our sacraments are ‘mysteries’. When I see the iconography in our church, am I able to articulate all of what the icons have revealed to me? No. But they’re beautiful, and beauty speaks to us in ways that are beyond words.
It’s kind of silly of me, I guess, to stand here and try to speak coherently about something like beauty – at the same time, though, I think everyone of us in this room has experienced the sight of a new child or grandchild, a rainbow in an unexpected place; something in this world which God has made, some part of the world that is as it should be.
It didn’t make any sense for me to become Orthodox. No one understood it. I still don’t understand it some days myself, but I’m happy I did it, because I have found peace in this church, and hope in this church, and joy in this church that I couldn’t have imagined. There is so much beauty here.
Imagine, for a minute that you lived in Hawaii. You see all the beautiful landscapes, the beautiful exotic plants, the majesty of the ocean, every day of your life. Then, someone who has lived every day of his life in North Dakota comes to visit you for the first time and with his eyes wide he tells you, “Wow, what beauty – it’s more beautiful than anything I’ve ever seen.”
Yet, one of the great things about Orthodoxy is that we’re all converts; it’s just that I happen to have converted a little bit later than most of the people in this room. None of us were born Christians, none of us. We were baptized or chrismated; that’s when we were converted. I think that, both sorts of Orthodox Christians—the ones who converted later, and the ones who became Orthodox as infants—have things to teach one another.
The people who have grown up in the Orthodox Church have shown how beautiful it is to live a life that has always been in the arms of the church. That is something that I want for my children, and I’ve seen that because of you.
At the same time, I’m glad to know that we recognize the importance of listening to the stories of those of us who – metaphorically speaking – used to live in North Dakota and have been ‘overwhelmed by the beauty of Hawaii.’
There are so many perspectives that we all bring, when it comes to our faith. And as part of the body of Christ, when we share our stories, we give a clearer picture of what it is to be Christians, and what it means to follow our loving God; a God who came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and Virgin Mary, a God who became human.
I’m reminded of St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi: “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is beautiful, whatever is commendable; if there is any excellence, if anything is worthy of praise, think about those things.”
Some of us have been thinking about, or meditating upon the beauty longer than others… But… I’m just so glad it’s beautiful. And I’m glad that I could stand before you today and say that, while becoming Orthodox made no worldly sense, it was the best decision I ever made.
It’s something I could never have predicted for my life; certainly not the twelve year-old who proclaimed that she was going to be a United Methodist Minister, but the Lord works in His ways. Here I am. I’m here because it’s beautiful – and because what is beautiful is true.