Chapter 17 // Contents // Chapter 19
WHY I CONVERTED TO
THE ORTHODOX FAITH
Two women often used to visit the convent at Comano out of religious interest - they were Caroline Bauer from Switzerland and Elizabeth Jenner from Germany. Caroline was a warm, open-hearted woman and related to a book-publisher, which meant she was rich. She was also a benefactor of the convent, offering a considerable amount of money. She used to visit the convent regularly as she had wanted to become a nun, but her family had stopped her. She lived in an Orthodox parish in Zurich. She had once decided to join the Orthodox faith, but the parish priest persuaded her to change her mind, promising her that he would give her holy communion if she remained Catholic.
As Caroline grew old, she wanted to withdraw to the convent. The Mother Superior refused, saying that the presence of the elderly lady could cause problems in the convent.
The refusal was the beginning of the end for the convent, commented a friend of Caroline's. A Catholic priest had previously exploited Caroline's ethical and religious character to help him establish another monastery. She tried to enter and this monastery, but without success. Always being in two minds about everything, she could not choose between the solitary life and the social life, between Orthodoxy and Catholicism. The will to reach a decision was lacking. She died confused and poor.
Elizabeth Jenner had a completely different character. Coming from a noted family of politicians, she was more intelligent and had a more decisive character than Caroline. In her youth, she had broken away from the Catholic Church, basically reacting against the strict religious fanaticism and ritualism of her family and surroundings. The era of resistance against the national socialists by the German Catholics was approaching. But as she was fond of saying:
"My best friends are the children of my friends". She always liked reactionary people.
After the war, being melancholy from her loneliness, through no fault of her own, being sick and being kept very busy in the running of a magazine, Elizabeth turned to the Eastern Orthodox faith and it's wonderful world. She then said decisively to herself:
"From now on, sadness will not be a part of my life". Even though she now spent her time informing the people on matters concerning Eastern Orthodoxy, she herself felt disgusted by how this faith had been turned into a "mouldy science of theology" by some people. Her form of theology was alive and animated, and incarnated in her prayers. She loved the ancient churches, but she especially loved Nature, which to her was of divine creation. The regions of Tessino and Northern Italy enchanted her, which was why she was attracted by a small island in the beautiful Lake Orta a few months before she died. There was a small Romaic church on the island, which Elizabeth had last seen in her youth, which she decided to repair without worrying about the cost. Following God and Nature, friendships was also very important to Elizabeth, helping to fulfill her soul, and she refused to hide this fact.
"Oh, if you only knew how difficult it is for a priest to speak openly about the fascination of Orthodoxy", said Father George, speaking confidentially to Elizabeth Jenner.
"But you don't have to hide your yearning to embrace the Orthodox faith with me", she replied with a conspiratorial smile.
This was then the start of their friendship. Sometimes, Elizabeth used to give Father George expensive gifts. They used to spend hours together discussing their common problem - their conversion to Orthodoxy.
"Airtight doors and little green and red lights outside the confession booths of the Catholic Churches in my town are things that I can't abide. I can't stand this religion anymore", she complained.
"Well then, become an Orthodox in the parish that you frequent. I will also be taking up the Orthodox faith very soon", was Father George's reply.
"You are right, father. But how will I confront the Catholic nuns at the retreat where I'm staying? Nevertheless, a person must be consistent with his convictions' till the end, so I will carry on".
Elizabeth showed that she had a strong character and deep religious convictions when she converted to Orthodoxy in 1971. Her Catholic friends, instead of ostracizing her, became closer, which shows the power of grace.
During this period of time, many young people approached Father George for advice, and most of them befriended him. One such person was a young high school student, who was Orthodox but had not been to any services, as there were no Orthodox priests in Tessino. This region had only Uniate priests. This young student, together with another student, were carrying out a research survey for a school project, on the different religions. Armed with a tape recorder, they visited a Catholic priest and a Uniate priest, the latter being Father George, who would be able to give them details on the Orthodox religion.
"Synodical formation? Well...maybe yes, maybe no. But the priest's celibacy must remain intact", stammered the former, who was a naive and unsophisticated parish priest.
"In the East, the priests who came from the Apostolic Church were allowed to marry before being ordained, " said Father George, speaking with ease. "Married clergymen, both Orthodox and Catholic, could really help the church and the people, drawing from their family experiences. In this way, they become the true "fathers" to their congregations. Celibacy, in itself, is neither the ideal nor practical. As for the 2nd Vatican Synod, this most important reform was not passed, as the Pope, making use of his "paramount and complete power", again said no. Therefore, the Catholic Church is still living in the age of absolute monarchy."
These answers by Father George were greeted with enthusiasm and applause by the school teacher and the students.
On another occasion, a young American, who was visiting the convent, became enthusiastic over the liturgy. Even though he was Anglican, he was attracted by the Orthodox traditions and rituals, and he asked Father George if he could become a Uniate.
"The regulations, after the 2nd Vatican Synod, decreed that if any Westerners converted to Catholicism, they would be incorporated into the western-styled discipline", replied Father George.
Out of the question! Some day, I will become Orthodox".
"If you want to become Orthodox, why do you want to waste time by going through the Uniate Church?" asked Father George, who seemed to be the right person to make the young American change his mind and not become a Uniate. But why was he willing to compromise by becoming a Uniate? The answer lay in his family. He was being pressured by his family to become a Uniate, and when he finally found the courage and strength to become an Orthodox in 1972 , he was disowned.
The two of them became good friends, spending their time together visiting all the old churches. Even after the American left, they kept in touch with each other for years.
This was now Father George's final year at the convent in Comano. The five nuns at the convent were having problems with each other, the two eventually leaving. This was followed by the arrival of a mysterious Orthodox nun, who managed to alienate the other nuns from Father George. The reason? Well, it could have been jealousy, as she took advantage of his admiration for Orthodoxy and kept him occupied all day by asking him questions.
Some time later, the inmates of the convent all went to an ecumenical meeting. There, a Protestant woman, somewhat flustered, described how she had "consummated" the Holy Eucharist to a dying woman.
"The subject in question is not whether we find your deed punishable or not, it is whether the sacrament that was consummated was valid". In this manner, the Catholic priest evaded the question.
After this meeting, Father George expressed his objections to the nuns, concerning the priest's reply. This was indeed a daring move by Father George, as the Mother Superior was a fervent feminist.
"You are just a theologian who deals in theoretical aspects and who ignores the practical aspects of life itself", shouted a nun at him. This was followed by absolute silence. No one dared to refute this opinion. Since then, Father George seriously thought about leaving the convent. But to go where? Foreigners could not earn a living in Tessino.
But the moment for his conversion to Orthodoxy was approaching. That summer, Elizabeth Jenner entered hospital for an operation. Father George had no idea that she was then seriously ill. She sent him a letter which filled him with joy:
"I have placed the icon that you brought me from Greece above my head. My greatest moment in life, and which brought me the greatest happiness of my life, was when 1 offered my soul to Christ. I am very happy that I am Orthodox, and I am feeling at peace with myself"
This confessing of her faith to Father George filled him with joy, and he was able to say: "Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word" (Luke 2, 29). After a week, Elizabeth died, leaving this world for another more joyous one.
Father George spent hours thinking about the last few lines in Elizabeth's letter. Faith, as is the original sin, is contagious. At Elizabeth's funeral, the funeral service emitted a son of peaceful familiarity and not the mourning state of desolation.
What we usually mourn when we lose someone is the friendship that we lose, a friendship that is both egotistical and emotional. But something different, something very Christian seemed to unite everyone at the funeral service. Elizabeth Jenner envisaged a spiritual and ultralogical world over and above what was fated to be. Her life and sole concern was the glorification of the Church, which will live forever, as will her soul live forever in the hearts of her friends. The inscription which was written, at her request, on the simple bare cross showed the true character of Elizabeth Jenner:
º came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father" (John 16, 28).
Chapter 17 // Contents // Chapter 19
Page created: 18-7-2008.
Last update: 18-7-2008.