It was the icon. I was
ignorant of its silent influence, working on us even as we were
unaware. Silently but steadfastly, wherever we moved, the icons I
collected as nice, religious works of art were the witnesses of our
journey through darkness towards the light that is Orthodoxy.
I viewed them as
aesthetically pleasing—the things that every good rectory should
have. My art history background taught me that they were the "flat,
primitive precursors of the enlightened artistic period of the
Renaissance—in which art glorified man." It is no wonder that their
true nature and meaning was not known to me. Nevertheless, because
of that very nature, they worked on us, waited for us, patiently.
My husband, Father Chad,
and I were known as "High-Church Anglo-Catholics," defenders of the
Anglican Church as defined by the Oxford Movement. (This movement
was started in England in 1833 by scholars and theologians who aimed
to reawaken the Anglican Communion to the doctrine, worship, and
spiritual life of the Church prior to the Great Schism of 1054.) All
was glorious pomp—complete with smells, bells, and a highly
choreographed and elaborate ritual. Every Sunday was a grand
production, a staged show, to enrich and inspire the masses. It was
no wonder that the congregation commented more on the lovely music
than the content of the lessons or the homily. This never set well
with me, and I was always searching for a deeper expression of faith.
As choir director, I always felt drained by the big productions,
rather than fulfilled.
Yet, I reasoned, if
only we kept doing things properly and in order, if we remained
faithful, somehow the glories of Anglicanism would be revived. It
was our duty to fight against the heresies (such as the denial of
the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection, and the breaking down of the
moral tenets of the Faith) that were raging in the Episcopal Church,
and to defend our Anglican heritage. People depended on us.
From the moment my
husband was ordained as priest in the Episcopal Church, he began to
preach against the false doctrines that slowly but relentlessly
chipped away at the foundations of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith
within the church. As missionaries in southern Africa, we were
aggressive Anglo-Catholic revolutionaries, reviving many who had
buried their heads in the sand in silent resignation.
Needless to say, we
also became the scourge of the liberal Protestant wing of the church
that was seeking to rewrite Scripture and throw out Tradition, My
role as a priest's wife was constantly under attack. I was referred
to as a "spouse mouse" for simply holding the same views on the
ordination of women as my husband did. I embraced traditional family
values and understood the importance of living a spiritual life, and
so I was accused of being a traitor to my sex.
We watched as many good
and holy bishops, priests, and deacons crumbled under the weight
that sent many to early graves, and drove others to the espousal of
the heresies they could no longer fight. While discouraged, we clung
to our strong convictions that it was our job to stay with the laity
and fight the battle.
I remember feeling very
angry at those who had already left for the Orthodox Church. How
could they abandon us to fight alone? I didn't realize it at the
time, but they had simply come to their senses; they knew that there
was nothing left to save and nothing left to fight for. Deep down in
my heart, I knew this, too, but for a time was too envious and
bitter to admit it. And still, the icons remained as silent
witnesses to the Truth that we had yet to see.
I became interested in
iconography when I had a midlife crisis at the age of forty. After
years of being the reluctant musician, directing choirs and playing
the organ and piano, I finally admitted to myself that my heart
wasn't in it. God called me into a new artistic realm, and I said
"yes," hesitatingly but willingly.
For as long as I could
remember, there had been a "little voice" inside me, encouraging me
to draw, to paint, to create. Art, not music, was to become my
passion. At the age of forty, with no formal art training, I almost
impulsively took the plunge, enrolling in a two-year course of study
in Graphic Art. I am blessed with a wonderful husband, who has that
rare gift of seeing the potential in others, and with his total
support, I began my life as a full-time student.
During my final year in
art school, I happened upon an article written by an Anglican monk,
describing his experiences at an Orthodox retreat center in
Pennsylvania called the Antiochian Village. He had gone there to
study iconography at the St. John of Damascus Sacred Art Academy,
and his article seized me with such interest that I could think of
nothing else. I wrote to the monk and asked for further information.
Eventually, with the help of some of our generous parishioners, I
was on my way to Pennsylvania.
I was awed by the
beauty of the morning and evening services I attended at the
Village. And of course, in this worship, I finally learned the true
meaning of icons. They are not flat, two-dimensional, lifeless
paintings, drawn by uneducated simpletons, as I had been taught in
my college art history classes. Rather, they are windows to
heaven—they inspire and uplift us and draw us into a deeper
communion with God. My favorite definition is one that Pavel
Florensky wrote: "The Icon exists as the visible manifestation of
the metaphysical essence of what it depicts." That's a mouthful, but
all he means is that icons help us by visually representing what we
know to be true spiritual realities.
I have always
identified with St. Peter. I plod along faithfully, and eventually a
light clicks on. On the other hand, my husband receives the Pauline
experiences of thunderbolts and visions. Yet during my stay at
Antiochian Village, something profound and inexplicable was
happening, something that almost rivaled Father Chad's thunderbolts.
Each morning, I would walk around the camp, faithfully praying the
rosary (yes, some non-Catholics do pray the rosary!), and each
morning I would stop before the shrine of St. Thekla. I knew nothing
about her, but somehow felt compelled to ask for her intercessions.
I learned later that St. Thekla, Proto-Martyr, was a follower of St.
Paul, and was the first female martyr of the Church. (I eventually
took the name "Thekla" at my chrismation. It seemed only natural.)
Very early into my
session at the Village—indeed, throughout my stay—I realized the
first stirrings of a desire to know more about the Orthodox Church.
Could it possibly be the steadfast Truth we had been seeking, or was
this merely a brief inspirational moment in a lovely and holy place?
Time began to make me suspect the former.
The spiritual and
emotional changes I experienced were immediately apparent when I
returned home, and surprised me—-not to mention my sons and husband!
I had found a rest that was almost indescribable, a warmth that
grows in the inner recesses of the heart, and works its way to the
surface. In iconography, it is the inner Light which shines forth
from within the person depicted, not a reflected light from an
In the weeks following
my return from the Village, I tried to hold onto the miracle, but
saw it become dimmer and dimmer in my mind as I was once again
caught up in trying to survive the daily battles that raged within
the Episcopal Church. Longing to recapture what I'd felt in my time
away, I thumbed through the yellow pages one day and came across the
number for St. George Orthodox Cathedral in Wichita. A kind and
understanding priest named Father Basil answered the phone. I asked
him if we could come down and see the church, and all was arranged
for a meeting that was to change our lives forever.
That meeting was, in
and of itself, a miracle. Not only was a bond instantly created with
Father Basil (now Bishop BASIL), but also the little Orthodox spark
within us began to glow. Our youngest son, Sean, and I would drive
down to St. George for services, on the rare occasions that I could
get away, and I remember weeping on discovering that this was the
One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that the Oxford Movement
Fathers had sought, but never fully attained.
I also wept for
sadness, for I knew that we, as the family of the Dean of an
Episcopal Cathedral, could never hope to be a part of this. To leave
the Episcopal Church would mean alienation, total chastisement by
parishioners, loss of pensions, health insurance, and salary. It
would open us up to an entire host of shattering experiences, too
frightening to contemplate. When I was at St. George Cathedral, I
felt like a child outside a candy store, looking in, and longing,
but knowing my pockets were empty. O ye of little faith!
We kept our longings to
become Orthodox quiet, although Father Chad had always been openly
positive about the Orthodox Church and her theology. In time, the
tensions and divisions became greater and greater. Disgruntled
parishioners held secret meetings in an attempt to silence the "mad
Dean." In an unholy union with the diocesan bishop, a large
contingent arose to oust Father Chad. My husband answered the
slanderous charges made against him as honestly as he knew how. In
the end he resigned over a false accusation, and a trumped-up charge
that was actually canonically illegal!
We had our opening,
though not quite the way we'd anticipated. We walked away with our
faith intact, although I must admit I was terrified as everything we
had worked for was gone. Thirty of the faithful chose to leave the
sinking ship along with us. (Someone has said that trying to reform
apostate denominations is like rearranging deck chairs on the
Titanic!) The people of the Episcopal Cathedral launched another
attack in an attempt to keep the straying parishioners; this time,
they branded Father Chad a cultist who had been secretly paid by the
Orthodox Church to initiate the separation.
Undeterred by the
rumors, on January 1, 1994, my family was chrismated and my husband
was ordained by Bishop BASIL. Our dear friend helped us through the
very difficult days that lay ahead, and we rejoiced that we finally
could rest under the wing of a good and holy leader, one truly
steeped in the Apostolic Tradition.
Thirty people were
chrismated a few weeks later, and at that point we all began taking
the steps to begin our growth together in God's Church. With the
help, prayers, and encouragement of the people of St. George
Cathedral, and the prayers of countless Orthodox parishes, we
founded the Mission of All Saints, Salina, Kansas. We held our first
service in the chapel of a funeral home!
During that first year
as a mission parish, we all experienced the doubt and depression
which results from a situation that felt uncomfortably like divorce.
Many times my husband and I fought fear over what would become of us
and our children, with the loss of our pension and insurance, and
generally shaky state of our finances. We would ask ourselves if we
were doing the right thing, and always God would reply with abundant
mercy and with miracles.
Before making the leap
of faith, though, we took the proper steps to insure that we would
not be destitute and thrown out on the streets, thereby giving our
detractors further ammunition. I immediately found a wonderful job
in my field as a graphic artist. Also, there were many of the
faithful who were committed to seeing the success of an Orthodox
Mission through the difficult days that were to come, and who gave
generously of their time and talents.
Our task was simple,
really. All we had to do was remain faithful and not let the devil
get a foothold. Easier said than done! Yet somehow, through our
newfound understanding of Orthodoxy, the task was one of joy, and
that joy made all the sacrifices easier to bear.
The next step in my
spiritual growth came when I immersed myself in the study of
Orthodox hymnology and services. With the help of parishioners who
had become Orthodox the year before, we threaded our way through the
new music and the different structure of the Divine Liturgy,
Vespers, and Orthros (Matins).
Remember the narrow
path our Lord always talked about? The Orthodox way of life, I
discovered, is not an easy one, but it is ever satisfying. For the
first time in my life, prayer has been transformed from meaningless,
watered-down repetition, to deep, contemplative, life-changing food.
I fall down daily, but now I have the tools which enable me to stand
back up and continue moving forward.
I now feel appreciated
for my role as "Khouriya" (the Arabic term of endearment for a
priest's wife), and I am ever surprised that I am accepted among
other Orthodox for taking this vocation seriously. Yes, trials still
exist, but somehow I feel completely armed to handle them. Orthodoxy
is the miracle that I have been seeking my entire life. I see Christ
more and more in those around me, and can at last let go of the
bitterness and pain which were my daily food for so many years. This
is only a little beginning in a little life. I have found the pearl
of great price, and I know I would give my life for it. My advice to
those still seeking? It is the same that I received from countless
others who have left other traditions to become Orthodox: Don't wait.
We had everything to lose, and found that instead, we gained
everything. Dive in, drink deeply of the waters. No longer are we on
the outside, longingly looking in; as Bishop BASIL said, "The moment
you were chrismated, you became Orthodox, and were truly grafted
into the Body of Christ."
(*) Raised in the small mountain town of Evergreen,
west of Denver, Shelley had a
colorful period in her life as a studio musician and singer/pianist
in a rock band! Marriage
settled her down, and she and Father
as missionaries in South Africa before
taking an Episcopal parish back in the States. Mother
to two boys, Shelley divides her time between her family, her role
at All Saints as Music Director, and her employment as a graphic
designer in Salina..