Once upon a time I went to Russia, having given up on living in America. (Wasn’t a deacon then. Wasn’t till I returned and got married.) At a hard time in my life, It was suggested to me to go to Russia, and having converted to Orthodoxy a number of years before, it seemed like an ideal.
Sure, I could see many graves of saints, and some beautiful churches, but the truth is that I was kidding myself. I’ll get back to that.
An Orthodox Christian is a member of the first Church in history, once spread throughout the world as one. Many Roman Catholics believe this about their Church; they are formally partly correct. Before what we know know as Roman Catholicism developed, Rome was the senior see of five major Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church. At the time, there was no claim of “universal” jurisdiction over the world. Bishops, as assigned by the Apostles, guarded their local flocks.
Once upon a time, the entire Christian world held the same unadulterated faith as the Orthodox today– whether Greek, or Russian, or Spanish, or German, or African or Arabic, all in varied and beautiful expression. Yet that is not the present day; we tend to think of Orthodoxy as Greek or Russian or Balkan, we tend to see it in small ethnic enclaves. Yet many of the things pious Christians do today are in fact vestiges of an Orthodox way of life long gone– parents blessing their children, often with the hand, for example.
My desire first was to understand the Orthodox Christian faith and be united to Her. And once that was done, growth in Orthodoxy should be a natural process. Things that have been passed down by sacred tradition are worth keeping to an Orthodox Christian.
So went I went to Russia; I thought I would see “Holy Rus”– I truly thought that, and to the degree I could find holy relics, et cetera, that was helpful– but Russia is not “Holy Rus” of old. It is destroyed, and broken, the largest “church” nothing but a secular organization designed to keep the people under control, financed and controlled by first the Soviet, and then the modern Russian government. (Greece is not the holy land of old either, but I saw far less of it, so I will say nothing).
In many ways, the modern Orthodox Christianity of many “average” Russians is like the modern Catholicism of many “average” Latin Americans– a folk religion of images, superstition, little interest in the ascetic life, puffed up, self absorbed, Church on Pascua and Nativity, and… conservative. It’s easy to be “pious”, because there’s so little to actually believe. In Russia, there were many True Orthodox– people who maintained the faith even during the Soviet times when it meant certain prison or death for millions. Yet not much had changed in a religious sense– they were still “in hiding” to a large degree and remain that way today, lest the government continue to attack them.
For the true believers of Russia, life wasn’t all that awesome. And if they lived in it, and didn’t have my fabulous vision– a vision many converts have of Russia or Greece– I finally realized I had simply lied to myself and had to reassess my faith on faith. And on the truth of that faith. I had to shake the illusions that so many convert to Orthodoxy with, because the truth stared me in the face.
My dream– my vision– a fantasy, really– was crushed. And I was crushed. So I became immersed in “regular” life in Russia. After all, what did I have left to do anymore? And I learned some Russian, and got used to the idea that I had made a decision to live there and I would stick by it. One day it finally occurred to me; I would always be an outsider, even to those of the True Faith. I’d always be the nice foreigner.
I didn’t belong there.
Not long after talking to my future wife online, I had to return to America to update my visa and because my family wanted me to see them. I had been away from New York a long time– years since I had lived in the Miami area long before I went to Russia– had there always been so many Latinos? How did I understand everyone on the train?
I overstayed the expiration of my trip. The new Bishop of my Church in America had no use for me over time; as a Church reporter I caused quite a stir with some articles, and he didn’t need any disloyal troublemakers I guess. I went to my wife’s Church– a Greek Church, though she’s Boricua– and went back to doing what I do– fighting about Church on the Internet.
One day I stared the romanticism of the convert in the face–coming from a son of Russian emigres. I knew he wasn’t born in Russia but deeply part of the Russian emigre “scene”…. he wrote in response to an Orthodox he disagreed with that to become Orthodox, one must “adopt a Russian soul”, and that one must to a degree become Russian. I screamed at the computer monitor.
Somewhere in one of those meaningful memories that show up just in such moments as I was yelling and cursing– I felt genuinely cheated– I remembered a sign on an old perpetually closed Church in Alphabet City: “Iglesia Ortodoxa Hispana de San Isidoro y San Leandro”. And I resolved to go there and ring the doorbell until someone explained to me what that was.
Finally, a very old Colombian monk answered the door and took me in to explain. It led to a deeper understanding of the original culture of Spain: a mixed one itself, not a homogeneous one– it led me to my Bishop. To some degree, I guess it even led to today’s arguments.
And that’s what happened– wrote a book about it and what I learned, the church I think is still closed now– and how a year and a half in Russia made me a Western, Hispanic Orthodox Christian. That journey allowed my true faith to make peace with my convert nature. It allowed me, as the Spanish liturgy states, to finally “return to the dignity in which I was created”.
How many times I’ve marred that by sin! How far I am today. But we fall, we repent, we rise. We continue.
And that’s why when people talk about “heterodox cultures” I get upset. And that’s why when converts speak romantically about “Orthodox countries” I feel numb. And that’s why when converts try to convert people of people — sometimes not even in their native language– to a “Greek” or “Russian” way, I get angry. Christ came for all of us. He would put no stumbling block that wasn’t for saving our souls. The path to salvation is long– it is the whole of our lives– and it is hard enough.
So now you know how I went to Russia, and the steps that led Joseph to later become Deacon Joseph, and why I get uppity about my culture and my background. How deeply tied into history, Christian history we are, even in this present day! (By the way, that’s why I have the views I do on La Raza Cosmica; Vasconcelos understood its slow creation over centuries….
In that church in Alphabet City, there is a humble folk-type painting, of the flight of the Mother of God Mary, St Joseph and Our Lord into Egypt. It reads in Spanish around the painting:
We too were immigrants