Limping to Orthodoxy

I am not sure I can call it my “spiritual journey.” There aren’t any particular memories in my mind of some kind of conversion, or of the “aha!” moments. It was, and is, a pretty routine, uneventful process.

I was born in Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, in December 1957. Of course, I’ve been exposed to things Orthodox from my early age, even though the society I grew up in was Soviet, i.e. basically Atheist. I never got any Christian education. Yet, every Sunday, when I walked near the St. Volodymyr Cathedral on Shevchenko Boulevard (see above), I heard the beautiful chime of the bells. When I peeked inside, I saw burning candles and beautiful icons and murals. My grandfather was a passionate collector of classical music records, including the records of Fyodor Chaliapin singing the Creed, the song of the elder Simeon from Luke 2, and other pieces of the Orthodox liturgical classics. So, I received some sort of an aesthetical introduction into Orthodoxy, not doctrinal, not rational. And then, I was a good student at my school, but I never liked it, and I plotted some rebellion in my heart. I thought, OK, you Soviet teachers say that there is no God – so I will think, believe, that there is God. Maybe to some extent my rebellion was like the rebellion of the American youth of the 60’s, but in reverse.

When I graduated from high school and became a college kid, I continued my rebellion, beginning even to act on it. I would come, every now and then, to the St. Volodymyr and stay there for a while, listening to the majestic singing of the choir. Once, I decided to stay overnight for a Paschal vigil. However, I did not stay all night, because I was still living with my parents, and I did not want to upset them. When I stepped outside from the church building, I was suddenly seized and immobilized by two policemen, and dragged into a precinct. There, it turned out that they took me by mistake, thinking that I was a Baptist preacher (back then, the Soviet law did not allow Protestants to preach outside of their houses of worship). Why in the world would they think that I was a Baptist and doing something illegal, I do not know.

As I studied in a medical school (Kyiv Medical Institute, now renamed Kyiv National Medical University), I gradually lost my belief in God and my desire to have something to do with the Church. I became a “positivist,” engrossed in natural sciences. I remained in this state when I was admitted to an MD/PhD program in Medical Genetics, and when I worked as a Junior Researcher at the Institute of Physiology of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences. I remained in this state when I came to the USA as a postdoc (in 1990). In the early 1990’s, my wife and I found a Ukrainian community in the city where we lived (Seattle, WA), and we attended a local Ukrainian Orthodox mission parish – but not really to worship; rather, we saw in it an opportunity for our daughter to retain her Ukrainian identity, communicating with Ukrainian kids and learning the Ukrainian folk dance.

Then suddenly, in March 1996, my father died. His death was tragic – it was suicide. My dad always created an impression of an easy-going, relaxed man who loved to joke, tell funny stories, laugh, and sing songs which were, sometimes, pretty racy. Only when he was dead, I realized that he had been severely depressed for years, masking his depression by this jovial, easy-going appearance. I began to wonder: maybe this horrible injustice of his death is not forever; maybe the Christian narrative of the “afterlife” is not all that fairy-tale-ish?

So I became interested in the Christian dogmatic. I read the Bible. I began to listen to the words the priest chanted during our Divine Liturgies. One line from one of the ektenias of the Liturgy of Catechumens particularly struck me: “Having remembered the Most Holy, Most Pure, Most Blessed, our Glorious Lady the Birth-Giver of God and the Ever-Virgin Mary with all the saints, let us commit ourselves, and one another, and our whole life to Christ our God.” I first heard it chanted by a Ukrainian priest, in the Ukrainian language, in the church attended almost exclusively by Ukrainians. That was, perhaps, the entire foundation of Orthodoxy to me: to believe in Christ our God, to venerate His Most Holy Mother and his saints, and to commit myself, and my Ukrainian compatriots who came to worship, and all my life in the Ukrainian Orthodox community, to Christ. And then later I understood that in Orthodoxy, “to commit” means not only to emulate Christ’s love, kindness, compassion etc. but also to unite with Him through the Holy Mystery of the Eucharist.

Then again some stumbling block appeared in my life. After several rotations as a postdoc (1990-1998), I accepted a faculty position at one of the large universities in the Southeast of the USA. I settled in a small university town. My wife (also a postdoc in Seattle) and my daughter joined me only in 18 months. I was very lonely in this entirely new environment, where there were no Ukrainians and no Orthodox church. On the other hand, in my town, pop. 20,000, there were houses of worship of 32 different Protestant denominations and one Catholic parish. So I began my “church-shopping.” I visited a Baptist church, and then a congregation of the Church of Christ, and then our local Catholic parish, and then a Presbyterian church. In the latter, I stayed for quite a while and even (for about a year) served as an elder.

All these places of Christian worship were filled with many good, kind, friendly people. They very sincerely wished me and my family well, visited me at home, invited me to Bible studies, and gave me some interesting books to read. And yet, something was missing. Every now and then, I heard that line from the ektenia, “Having remembered the Most Holy, Most pure, Most Blessed…” Slowly, gradually it began to unwind in my mind that I have no real home outside the Orthodox Church. I did not “read myself into Orthodoxy” – rather, my limping towards Orthodoxy was sustained by the beauty of the Orthodox worship and Holy Mysteries.

Fr. Andrew Koufopulos baptizing a child at our current Greek parish

Fr. Andrew Koufopulos baptizing a child at our current Greek parish

So, eventually, my wife and I found a Greek Orthodox mission parish relatively close to where we live (50 miles). It happened in 2007 and, for the last 7 years, I had no desire whatsoever to “shop” for another church. I just don’t need it. Even though there are no Ukrainians in our parish, and the services are in English with small fragments in Greek, I still feel absolutely at home there. My co-parishioners (Greek, half-Greek, quarter-Greek, or Anglo-Saxon converts) are among my best, dearest friends. And, most importantly, I feel, or, rather, I know that the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Eucharist is something that really sustains my life.

Also, during my visits to my home country, Ukraine, I met a number of wonderful Ukrainian Orthodox clergy and laity. We keep corresponding on social media. I am especially happy to have Protopresbyter Father Andriy Dudchenko as my friend and my spiritual adviser, and also his bishop, His Eminence Archbishop +Oleksandr (Drabinko), as my most interesting correspondent and friend.

Lesya and me having coffee and chat with Fr. Andriy Dudchenko in Kyiv

Lesya and me having coffee and chat with Fr. Andriy Dudchenko in Kyiv

That’s about it. I keep limping… The road is not easy. There are some things that irritate me in our Church, particularly the so-called “Political Orthodoxy” – a phenomenon when the spirit of Orthodox Christianity becomes contaminated by strange dreams about restoring the “Russian World,” or regaining the Great City of Constantinople, or destroying the evil decadent West (or a combination of all of the above). I don’t like it when some Orthodox bash Heterodox, especially Catholics, as “heretics,” and (worse) become paranoid about a clandestine aggression of the evil Vatican. But then, the Church, being the Body of Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, still consists of imperfect human beings who like to entertain themselves with vain projects, or to create imagined enemies. It is, perhaps inevitable. But I know that I need to overcome my irritation and hostility, and simply to live my Orthodox life, which is, again, something that is sustained in me by the Eucharist.

I keep limping.

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Dr. George Pinchuk is Professor of Biology at Mississippi University…
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