As a general statement, St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco Russian Orthodox Church does not endorse any specific views presented in the following testimony as reflective of the Church at large. The writing is temporarily hosted on this website as a courtesy to the author:
A New Atheist Finds the Ancient Faith
My grandmother was raised in a traditional French and Polish Catholic family, but was eventually excommunicated due to certain lifestyle decisions, and soon after became a self-proclaimed witch, giving her the chance to scare the neighbors with the threat of curses. Consequently, as I’m sure you can imagine, my mother didn’t have that same traditional Catholic upbringing. My father was raised in a Protestant family, but as was popular with children at the time, he snuck out of the beginning church services to go play in the streets.
Neither of my parents were raised in a particularly religious environment, and though they each had their own ideas on religion as they became adults, those ideas weren’t particularly imparted to me, besides the occasional mention of Jesus, sin, and the Ten Commandments – both the Biblical concept and the movie with Charlton Heston. Eventually, when I was about 5 or 6, a neighbor asked me if I wanted to attend his Methodist church with him, and I agreed. I attended Sunday school there for a few years out of my own volition, though the ideas that were presented to me never made much sense. I remember specifically asking my Sunday school teacher why Jesus had to die for us and her response what, “It’s hard to explain, you’ll understand when you’re older,” which is an all too common, but generally unsatisfactory answer for small children.
As I got older, I became increasingly more intrigued by the big questions of life: Why are we here? Where did everything come from? Is there an overarching purpose to life? At age 11, I found some books on my mother’s bookshelf from a self-proclaimed new-age psychic who also happened to be a Christian. I was enthralled by these books, with all their fantastical details of angels, Heaven, reincarnation, other dimensions, aliens, and so on. As someone who was 11, the critical thinking parts of the brain had not yet particularly kicked in – I did not realize that adults, our trusted protectors, could lie to us, or be so easily deceived themselves – and so I began believing the details of these books wholeheartedly. Though, this was the case only until I got access to the internet on our grand old Windows 98.
Upon being able to log into the world-wide-web, I decided to learn more about this psychic online. Then the unimaginable happened – I found out they were a fraud, a phony, and a charlatan. My world shattered for a moment, and I had to come to the conclusion that everything I had began believing about religion, my worldview, was false. So, if this person was not presenting a proper and true version of Christianity, who was? I began doing research on Christianity as a whole, and the biggest names in the game in America tended to be the Baptists and Evangelicals. Yet, were these people, who seemed so devout, frauds as wells? Some very intelligent scientists and other well-respected individuals like Richard Dawkins and the like, who at the time were branded as the New Atheists, seemed to think so.
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As I further looked into the claims of Christianity, I read that there was no empirical evidence for a Creator, especially not for the Christian God, and there was little to no reason to believe in one. In fact, I found that Christianity had been a blight on civilization for centuries, used by those in power to control the poor, uneducated masses, and religion was the biggest cause of the modern era’s societal problems. I saw that the theology of Christianity didn’t make sense either – why would Jesus, who is God, need to sacrifice Himself to appease Himself so He wouldn’t have to send His creations to the hell He created? With this newly found information, I began referring to myself as an agnostic atheist (agnostic meaning a belief that the existence of a god is currently unknowable, and consequently atheist meaning lacking a definite belief in a god, due to the lack of knowability), with a healthy dose of anti-theism mixed in (meaning, at least in my sense, morally against the idea of the Christian God).
Over the years, though, those “big questions” about life and the universe still bugged me. In some way it wasn’t something that simply bothered me on a superficial level, but rather there was a deeper emptiness and sadness that came with being a ‘None,’ and the nihilism of not having at least basic answers to these questions. Throughout my teenage years I began independently searching for the answers. I realized that everybody had some sort of worldview, even if there were a lot of question marks within it, that they based their life and actions on. Everyone chose something to believe, conscious or not, which drove their existence as a person.
Everybody has an internal ethical system and decision-making system that is moving them throughout life – rationally determined or not. For some people, they don’t consciously commit to a system, but the system simply becomes internalized based on one’s experiences and upbringing, the people around them, and the social zeitgeist - meaning the spirit of the age and cultural situation in which they live. Other people choose or come up with rationalized systems of ethics created by philosophers, such as utilitarianism. As is common in the modern West, some folks knowingly accept a lack of objective truth, ethics, and purpose, choosing to view the universe as “absurd” and chaotic, and making up their own meaning to it all. It’s also common to simply not care about the answers and just live one’s life in a manner which is believed to achieve the most happiness – which for some people may be hedonism, or for others that may come from dedicating their life to the happiness of other people, such as one’s family. Above all else, though, the most popular inspiration for the answers to the big questions came from religions – Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Sikhism, Taoism, folk traditions, and so on.
With Christianity obviously out of the picture from my earlier experience with it, I began looking to see if all these other religions 1) were logically cohesive, and 2) had reasons to believe them over another. After several years of seeking, I began to gain great respect for all these various belief systems. It seemed that the majority of writings I read, and the many non-Christian people I spoke to, seemed to praise all the diverse religions of the world – except for Christianity (and maybe Scientology too, but that’s a different story). The religion that stood out to me personally the most was Buddhism. Within Buddhism, there is the concept that life innately includes “dukkha,” and if you really simplify the concept down, it roughly comes out to meaning an “insatiable unsatisfactoriness or suffering.” Life, at its core, was going to be unpleasant and there’d be an underlying unhappiness about it – which was a truth I’d known for a while at that point. The Buddha, though, taught a way towards the cessation of dukkha, referred to as the eightfold path. To gain trust that his teachings would be successful in that regard, he said, we should try them ourselves.
Without going into too much detail on the subject, while I flirted with the philosophies of Buddhism during some of my teenage years, I still found it lacking what I was seeking. For one, the Buddha never answered the big questions, either viewing the answers as distractions or as unknowable, and instead suggested he was only concerned about the existence and end of personal suffering. Religious Buddhism was also still full of “supernatural elements,” for lack of a better word, including reincarnation, ghosts, gods, and miracles which still had no empirical evidence backing it. The Buddha also suggested that he wasn’t going to save us from suffering, but instead we essentially had to save ourselves – meaning, if we wanted to test his teachings as he suggested we do, it would probably be a life long (or several lives long) endeavor. For these and many other reasons, I stopped calling myself a Buddhist, but still respected the purely philosophical aspects of the religion.
As time went on, the drudgery of life really started getting to me - my nihilism wasn’t helping either - and I went about life in a melancholic state, despite my life being rather alright all things considered. I saw around me many people in the world full of hope and happiness. Death was not something they looked forward to in suicidal ideation as I often did, but they did not fear death either. They did not have a pre-made noose under their chairs, waiting for the day they could no longer bear not to use it. Most of these people, at least where I lived, were Christians. They seemed, from my experience, not very knowledgeable about Christianity, but they believed in Jesus Christ nonetheless. To me, the idea of “faith” never made sense unless it was grounded on something reasonable – and so were all these people just choosing to be willfully ignorant to the fact Christianity is a sham? The more I thought about it, the more I wondered if I had missed something in my adolescence when I looked into Christianity. Perhaps, I thought, maybe I should try again, give it a look independently, outside the lens of others’ pre-existing opinions.
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One night I decided to get a Bible off my family’s bookshelf and began reading the Gospel of Matthew. The more I read the more I realized I had been wrong about this book. When I read, I saw that God was not a vengeful judge out to punish everybody for being human, but was a loving father trying to correct His rebellious and self-destructive children, to help them be truly human, but giving them space if that is what they demanded He do. I saw that the disciples did not act like characters in a fable or myth, but like real people encountering the living God. I saw that, while perhaps confusing in some parts from the archaic language, the Gospels pieced together a cohesive picture of Jesus and His teachers that made logical sense. Even in the Old Testament, I saw that in the inspired writings of Ecclesiastes and Job that God understood what it was like to be human, and He wanted to fix our fallen states and for us to be joyous with Him, as preached in the New Testament.
Despite the Bible speaking to me on some profound level, I still couldn’t get over the idea of faith. It just made no sense to me how you can suddenly start believing something without evidence. Next, I began to see if it was, at the very least, reasonable to believe in God. What I found was that while there is no hard, empirical, scientifically verifiable evidence of God, scholars and philosophers over the centuries have come up with many arguments in favor of the existence of a Creator, and why belief in one is quite reasonable, though unprovable. Not discussed here are the consciousness argument, the ontological argument, the objective morality argument, and the desire argument. While these topics are vaster than room here allows, two common ones are the Cosmological Argument and the Teleological argument. I once saw them succinctly described:
The Cosmological Argument: "simply put, cause and effect exists; if we go backwards in time, either cause and effect are infinite and have no beginning, or there exists an 'uncaused cause.' There must be something that is eternal, because matter and energy cannot proceed from nothingness (as far as we know according to science and physics as they stand today). Either the universe has existed infinitely (though not immutably - as shown by the Big Bang theory), or there is something or someone that has existed infinitely and has caused our universe - again, the 'uncaused cause.' We could call that something or someone God.”
The Teleological Argument: "simply put, there are clear marks of intelligent design in the universe, and if there is design, there must be some sort of awareness or designer behind it. This is usually founded on the 'fine-tuned universe' that looks at the statistics to end up with a universe like ours - gravitational constants, elements, timing, etc. - all of which allowed for humanity to exist on this third rock from the sun. It's remarkably improbable that random chance could have instigated such a universe without other life evident, unless you subscribe to multiverse theory (in some way is more improbable than a deity). Some apologists will bring out the 'finding a wristwatch in a forest' analogy, and also the problem of information in DNA."
While none of the above listed arguments particularly convinced me that God certainly exists, it began to make more sense to me that our universe was created by a greater intelligence, than for the universe to have come about from nothing randomly, or for there to be infinite universe, or some other unknown option. I doubt that reading these arguments will really suddenly help any skeptic, but I need to reiterate that I, nor anyone else, has found irrefutable proof of a Creator, it just seemed to me that given how we know the world works, that it was more likely we had a Creator, compared to the other options. I found that it’s important to realize belief itself as a spectrum, not a purely binary 1 or 0, true or false. That isn’t to say facts are on a spectrum, because they aren’t – something can only be objectively true or false - but belief itself exists on a spectrum. To give a clearer example, there's certain topics one can almost be completely certain of (e.g. the sun will rise tomorrow morning), other topics one might believe are likely (e.g. I probably won't die today), some topics one might suspect are true (e.g. I think my wife might be cooking eggs in the kitchen, but it could be something else), some topics one is completely unsure of, and then the same reverse options for unbelief. Additionally, people rarely can state something as true or false definitely, with 100% certainty of anything, as shown through Descartes' "Evil Demon" thought experiment (simplified, we don’t know for certain if our whole life has been a hallucination conjured up by some outside entity), or the modern “Brain in a Vat” idea (we could be a disembodied brain, hooked up to a machine that makes us think we’re living this life, and we cannot ever know that this is or is not true).
And so, with these ideas having now been fixed in my mind, I began to at least suspect that the universe was a created thing. Consider me to have been in the “more likely than not” camp, in terms of our belief spectrum. More importantly perhaps, if there was a Creator, and this Creator wanted us to be known, it only makes sense that they would do so in a very apparent way – such as coming down to our level, founding a Church, and working within the hearts and souls of its creations. Those points lead me into the next question: if belief in a Creator is at least reasonable, is it also reasonable to assume that this Creator is the God espoused in Christianity? After looking into the existence of the historical Jesus and the ancient Christian Church, I found the following reasons relatively convincing as well.
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Reason 1: The Historicity of the Gospel Accounts
We can look to the four separate Gospel texts, which translates to “the good news,” as spiritual biographies on the life of Jesus. According to academics and experts on the subject, the writings, known as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, were all written by different people, in different areas, from different backgrounds, and in different languages. While each writing has slightly varying accounts, with some having additional stories compared to the other Gospels, each writing shows a cohesive view of Jesus, His life and ministry, and His death and resurrection.
There’s a common misconception about the Bible, particularly the New Testament, that “it’s been written and rewritten, translated from translations, and copied so many times that we have no idea what the originals actually said.” This has been proven to be untrue by scholars on the subject. There’s been over 5000 early copies of the New Testament found through-out the world, all of which say the same thing, while a something such as Homer’s Iliad only has 500 copies. Even disregarding these copies, all the early Christians and Church Fathers quoted the same New Testament no matter in what part of the world they were in. Considering their writings as well, the Gospel accounts could possibly be recreated almost fully from the quotations there alone. Had there ever been mistakes in the New Testament writings, they could have only occurred within the very first few copies ever made. As of today, our current translations of the Bible use some of the oldest copies available to check against, and thus they account for mistakes made in medieval manuscripts and translations.
Reason 2: The Reliability of the Gospel Accounts
If it’s likely, given the evidence, that the Gospel accounts of Jesus that exist today contain what was originally written 2000 years ago, is it still reasonable to trust that what was written happened as actual fact, not fiction?
Firstly, despite four different people writing four different accounts of Jesus’ life, they all remarkably say the same things. While an original earlier document known as ‘Q’ may predate the four Gospel accounts, no such thing has yet been found, though it has been theorized to exist. The people who wrote the Gospel accounts are believed to have either known Jesus directly, were scribes writing down the dictation of people who did, or were early Christians who interviewed people who knew Jesus personally, as Luke did. Luke was very interested in getting an accurate picture of Jesus’ life and even made it a point to say so at the beginning of the “Gospel According to Luke.”
Secondly, based on the wide distribution of the origin the 5000 copies, and taking into account the average speed in which documents spread at that point in history, it’s estimated that each Gospel account was written somewhere between 66AD and 110AD according to both secular and religious New Testament scholars. As the Gospel accounts were written within the lifetime of those who would have presumably seen Jesus - as His crucifixion is believed to have occurred around 33AD - if what was written in them contained many falsities, the locals living around Judaea would likely have known better. If supposedly 500 people were to have all gone at once to see Jesus perform miracles, but no one could be found who actually saw these supposed miracles, its rather unlikely belief in Jesus would have spread much as it did.
To give an example, the Gospels note that the Roman and Jewish authorities were aware that Jesus’ body at some point went missing from the tomb. The authorities did not simply deny this and then present His body, as they would have done if the disciples were truly lying, but instead claimed that the body was only stolen. Yet, despite the great anger of the Jews towards Jesus and His followers, and the fear of the local Romans towards what sorts of rebellions and unrest His followers could have caused, would they not have taken great care to make sure something as simple as His body would have been protected at least for a week after the crucifixion? And if the Gospels are lying about all this in general, shouldn’t there be some account of the Romans trying to stop all these major rumors altogether, given the supposed damage to their reputation it could cause, or worse?
Lastly, it would make very little sense for the disciples of Jesus to continue His ministry after His death if He did not actually resurrect from the dead. The disciples of Christ were under heavy persecution, many ending up tortured to death, and had no solid reasons to continue preaching about Jesus unless they genuinely saw Him perform miracles and believed His message. They could have returned to their families and continued along the existing Jewish faith, but instead something had convinced them all to continue preaching the resurrected Christ, even in the face of brutal execution and monstrous tortures. Paul the Apostle, who claimed to have seen the resurrected Christ and witnessed miracles, even admits “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile.” Not only were the direct disciples of Christ convinced He was the Lord, but the Christian Church spread like wildfire as the disciples also began performing miracles, including healing the sick and suddenly gaining the ability to speak foreign languages. More on that later.
Reason 3: External Sources of Christ’s Life
Overwhelmingly, historians believe that Jesus Christ did exist, although many disagree on the details of His life. One of the reasons for such a strong consensus on the matter is the existence of sources outside of the Bible that mention Jesus. Some of those who are believed to have mentioned Jesus, often coming from ideologies hostile to Christianity, include the Roman pagans Thallus (52AD), Tacitus (56-120AD), Mara Bar-Serapion (70AD), Phlegon (80-140AD), Lucian of Samosata: (115-200AD), Celsus (175AD), and the non-Christian Jew Josephus (37-101AD).
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The fourth point here will require prefacing with a continuation of my story and some background information, as ‘Reason 4’ is perhaps a bit harder to swallow.
As previously mentioned, I had been experiencing some situational based nihilistic depression during my initial phase of research into Christianity. After having gone over the previously mentioned reasons in favor of a theistic worldview, during one of my lower points, I decided to give prayer a try and resolved to truly seek God, if only He’d do the same to me. My development as a burgeoning Christian was filled with inward and outward shame, as not only did I feel silly starting to do a 180 in my beliefs and values, but my friends also did not take kindly to learning this – as my friends and I were not necessarily living the most savory of lives at the time. So, delving more into the faith was an awkward experience for me. Having been a long-haired hippie type, though perhaps a bit angrier than most hippies, trying to join a church, surrounded by clean-shaven men in suits, just felt weird. Still, it was something I felt I needed to do – to ask people questions and get the full Christian experience. I didn’t know what church to join, so I joined the first one where I felt comfortable visiting, accompanied by my girlfriend who was following me on this journey. Oddly enough, it was an old Presbyterian church with a rather geriatric population. And there is where I got baptized, and learned that the people who attended churches were not all stupid, or bigots, or unwelcoming. Over time, as I began to see a new meaning to life, my depression began to alleviate as well.
As I began becoming firmer in my growing faith in Christianity, I naturally began to study the history of the religion as it developed after Christ’s death. What I found is that the Christian Church, straight from the beginning, was a relatively orderly thing, all things considered. There had been formal catechisms, or instructional guides, made within the first 50 years of Christ’s death. The apostles went and founded distinct churches, which internally organized themselves internally with a hierarchy of elders, but dialogued with their fellow churches as well. There had been the formation of formal rites, services, and sacraments very early on. Eventually, there had been worldwide pan-Christian councils during times of squabbling amongst the jurisdictional churches to hammer out what were unquestionable truths and doctrine.
The early “Fathers” of the Church wrote long sermons and explanations for the various points of theologies. Strangely enough, these actually made sense. These were not the “Jesus, who is God, needed to sacrifice Himself to appease Himself so He wouldn’t have to send His creations to the hell He created” style of explanations I had heard in well-meaning but perhaps mistaken Protestant circles. The Fathers’ explanations for points of morality, church organization, God’s relation to humans, logically combined into a cohesive, comprehensive whole. I was struck by the soundness of their arguments. I began to show some of my old friends the things the Church Fathers said, and while they were still not willing to take the dive to become Christians, my friends stated that this brand of Christianity was the only Christianity that actually made sense to them.
As my knowledge of this topic expanded with time as I began immersing myself in study of ancient and traditional Christianity, outside of the seemingly all-encompassing modern American conceptions of the faith. It seemed that there were really only two churches that proclaimed to hold these traditional Christian beliefs, that were ‘this brand of Christianity’: Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Deciding between the two was rough. I did quite a bit of research on Orthodoxy vs Catholicism, and I've come to the conclusion that both sides have seemingly convincing arguments and rebuttals. If Catholics say one thing, the Orthodox will give a valid point of disagreement, then the Catholics respond with seemingly reasonable rebuttal, and this can go back and forth into eternity.
Understandably, most Americans, especially those who might come from Protestant backgrounds, feel that they do not have the time to delve into the topics of theology and church history, or perhaps think they are not intelligent enough to do so. The commonness of these opinions is a tragedy, given how readily information is available nowadays. To make matters worse on this front, few Americans ever end up making it through an Orthodox parish's door, which has historically been most people's first steps on their conversion journey due to the experiential nature of the Church. And so, given the great depth of many of these topics, I saw how a person may remain or become Catholic, as perhaps a reasonable person could be convinced by basic Catholic apologetics, or may be drawn there from cultural or familial considerations. Although, this eventually was not been the case with me, as well as a now growing number of Westerners whose disillusionment with the Catholicism has been sparked by modern controversies and then solidified by learning about Rome's history in general.
Consequently, I had progressively become more convinced of Orthodoxy over Catholicism, and have now been firmly there ever since. It seems that Orthodoxy has retained the original structure of the early Church more-so than Rome (e.g. no unquestionable head as with Papal supremacy), retained the original beliefs more so (e.g. filioque issue), did not form new dogma wasn't already flourishing in the earlier Church (e.g. purgatory, original sin, venial vs mortal sins, indulgences), retained orthodox in its art and symbolism (e.g. Catholic art is less strict, causing churches to often times have heretical art like depictions of the Father), has generally had less major scandals (e.g. inquisition, crusades, forced native conversions, false popes, the old and modern molestation scandals), and so on, including having theology and practices personally make more sense to me (e.g. Orthodoxy having married priests, speaking the language of the people during Liturgy). Though, none of these reasons, from my perspective anyways, are individually home-runs in terms of what might convince someone Orthodoxy is the true Church while Roman Catholicism has went into schism. Regardless, taking these multitude of points into account holistically, and following the draw of my heart (being more than likely the will of God), I have come to the beauty, the logic, and the mysticism found in the Orthodox faith.
These were the later points that began solidifying my growing belief in in Orthodox Christianity...
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Reason 4: The Miracles of the Church
Since the beginning of the Christian Church, there have been reports and legends of miracles outside what is simply found in the Biblical narrative. It would be easy for the empirically minded Westerner to sweep these away as pious, but untrue myths. Although there have been a fair number of religious hoaxes throughout history that have been definitely proven to be true, the shear number of reported miracles is rather interesting. A question I heard repeated quite often during my time as a spiritual seeker is, “If God was so willing to perform miracles thousands of years ago, why aren’t there miracles anymore?” and then usually followed by the statement, “Probably because God isn’t real and medieval people were just fooled either by charlatans or tall tales.”
While no doubt there have been charlatans parading as wonder-workers, as clearly shown via my experience with psychics in my youth, most miracles seemed to have come from so-called saints. Most Americans don’t particularly seem to know what saints are – and I certainly didn’t during my seeking years. We know of people with Saint in their name, like Saint Patrick or Saint Nicholas, but that word is just often seen as part of someone’s name, as opposed to some sort of identifying term. The list of saints, though, contain a wide collection of people, and there are also different classes of saints, but at its core means a person that the Christian Church is sure had a special relationship with God and have now reposed into Heaven.
Generally speaking, saints are people with a high moral standing both in their church and their local community – pious, ascetic, altruistic, defenders of the defenseless. These people hardly seem like tricksters living such harsh lifestyles without monetary gain or otherwise beneficial forms of recognition. I cannot emphasize this enough, but to live the lives of these people in and of itself seems like it requires divine intervention, though that is not alone proof enough of literal miracles. So again, while it is easy to assume that legends are made up after people’s death, it is interesting to note that modern saints are still being canonized to this day. These are people all across the world, including in America, where miracles have been attributed to them, witnessed by whole parishes – the same sort of miracles attributed to Christ and His apostles. People such as St. John of Shanghai do not have book deals, groupies, mansions, but instead live quiet, celibate lives in austere monastic cells. Additionally, the people who have reportedly witnessed or experienced the so-called miracles are still alive to tell the tales.
Besides living saintly people, there seem to be a number of reported modern-day miracles which involve holy relics – such as the body parts of reposed saints or paintings of religious iconography. In my opinion, amongst the myriad of stories, the most interesting ones are also some of the simplest. One example, as small as it is, that the sisters of Holy Protection Monastery in Pennsylvania will tell you is that of an old and blackened icon that miraculously restored itself over the period of a single Liturgy a few years ago, witnessed by all the people present.
Also, across the world, people proclaim there are “myrrh-streaming icons.” These panels of painted wood supposedly continuously produce and drip a fragrant substance. At first it seems that this may be easy to fake, but I implore you personally to look around online at the stories of people who have encountered these icons. Most people, even if they are not Christians, are often baffled by what they see. Higher members of clergy, including bishops, inspect these reports to make sure it isn’t the result of hoaxsters trying to make a quick buck, to preserve the sanctity to their Church. Take for instance the weeping icon of Taylor, Pennsylvania. Many faithful people, including several of whom I know in person, swear up and down that the oil really does suddenly appear, seems to work miraculous powers of healing, and that many people have converted after witnessing the event.
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In general, Orthodoxy is considered a very mystical faith. It’s viewed as experiential and personal, and not something solely up to the empirical intellect to come to. At the same time, it’s not a religion based on feelings, but like the theology of the faith itself, it is an all-encompassing whole in the life of the believer. The de-facto motto of Orthodoxy has become “Come and see!” – a suggestion made by the disciple Philip to the unbelieving Nathaniel when asking about Jesus. And so, Orthodoxy encourages all seekers to physically come and experience the Divine Liturgy and life in the “body of Christ” (or the Church) as the first thing a seeker should do, due to the very experiential nature of it all.
So, Seeker, if you’ve read thus far, I implore you as well: “Come and see!” You may be surprised in the very same way I was those years ago.