Seeking 'wonder, holiness' Religion: People from different faiths and walks of life are finding hope, and a home, in Orthodox Christianity.

October 23, 1997|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Mitchell Glassman was reared an Orthodox Jew, but his spiritual quest has led him to Jesus Christ and Orthodox Christianity.

Zenaida Bench grew up in an Episcopal congregation, but mourned what she saw as her church's defection from Scripture. Bench converted to Orthodox Christianity, a faith that she says has not compromised its stance on abortion, homosexuality, sex outside of marriage and moral issues.

Since she was a child, Rebecca Galanakis worshiped as a Lutheran, but after meeting her future husband, a lifelong member of Baltimore's Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Annunciation, she knew she would one day convert.

Their conversions may stem from a variety of motivations, but Glassman, Bench and Galanakis now share a love for the spiritual discipline, familial atmosphere and healing forgiveness of Orthodox Christianity.

They also share their attraction to a faith made ornately tangible with Byzantine icons, otherworldly chants and fragrant incense, with thousands of other converts. Today, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader for the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians, arrives in Baltimore, he will be addressing not only cradle Orthodox, but people like Bench, whose enthusiasm and joy in her newfound faith matche that of any lifelong church member.

The National Council of Churches estimates that there are 20,000 annual conversions to Eastern Orthodoxy. Converts cite the church's cultural splendor and its pure expression of Christianity. Others are drawn to the vigorous worship, which involves much bowing and prostration.

The Orthodox liturgy, "its sung creeds and prayers, with its use of icons and attention to sacred space, with its way of making individuals feel that they are part of the great drama of salvation and new beginnings," is what is luring people to the church, says David Willis, a professor at the Princeton Theological Seminary. "There is a tremendous hunger, in our flattened-out culture today, for a sense of wonder and holiness."

Others defect from Roman Catholicism, because they are attracted by what they see as the church's more "adult," less authoritarian approach to human imperfection. Some new to Orthodox Christianity are comfortable with the church's more lenient approach to contraception and its acceptance of marriage for priests before they are ordained. But they are not comfortable with the Roman Catholic concept of the infallibility of the pope.

That does not mean that the path from one faith to Eastern Orthodoxy is always a smooth one.

For Glassman, a 41-year-old computer operator, conversion was an experience rife with questioning and intense self-analysis. "I felt very drawn to [Jesus] and yet had a lot of questions as a Jewish person," he says. "It was a real major conflict in my life for a long time. And then, I reached a point of being willing to say, 'I don't have all the answers, but I'll still follow.' "

Glassman's search led him to the Holy Cross Orthodox Mission in Linthicum, a church attended mostly by other converts and led by the Rev. Gregory Mathewes-Green, himself a former Episcopal priest.

It is difficult for Glassman to articulate exactly what aspect of Orthodoxy spoke most ardently to him. He doesn't buy into "the typical Protestant-fundamentalist view of the salvation and the work of Christ," in which "there is very much a sense of a legalistic kind of thing. This God's wrath was infinite; therefore his punishment has to be infinite and the only person that could pay that big a penalty is God himself in the person of Jesus Christ."

In Glassman's mind, Orthodox Christianity "has a much more well-balanced view. They don't look at salvation as a one-time thing that happens in life there is a very deeply felt sense that we are all sinners and we do continue to sin, we continue to fail, and yet, at the same time, we understand that to be a struggle and a learning process.

"There's a constant process of reconciliation to God and bringing ourselves into line with him."

Surprisingly, Orthodox Christianity also offered Glassman a comforting sense of familiarity.

"Although on one level [the church] seemed somewhat strange and foreign, there is also a way in which it was very familiar and very comforting," he says. "That was because it felt very Jewish. It was because it was so traditional, and so many of the practices have been preserved over the centuries and date back to and were the direct outgrowth of early temple worship."

Zenaida Bench, 50, grew up in St. Peter's Episcopal Church in Ellicott City and had even been a nun from 1968 until 1983. But by 1990, Bench realized she no longer could support her lifelong church, which had "lowered itself" by accommodating the sexual revolution that had swept the country. The Episcopal church's teachings on abortion, homosexuality and premarital sex no longer held fast.

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