When I would go and sit in the back of the very large Greek Orthodox Cathedral, I would get such a deep sense of peace from the service whether it was a full-blown Sunday service with the choir and lots of people or a quieter midweek service. I always felt like time there in the Divine Liturgy or Orthros or Paraklesis put me back in my right mind. Hopefully, I have never been as “far gone” as the demoniac described in Luke 8:26-39 (no one has ever felt the need to keep me “under guard, and bound with chains and fetters”). But I can always relate to the part of the story toward the end where the man is found sitting at the feet of Jesus and in his right mind. I always walked away from Orthodox services having sat at the feet of Jesus and in my right mind.
Our family of 5 had been through a lot in the few years prior to me visiting an Orthodox Christian Church. One of our children had been diagnosed with 2 fatal problems midway during the pregnancy at the 20 week ultrasound. We were initially told through both a first and second medical opinion it was hopeless. We had the unimaginable prospect of carrying the pregnancy to term and then immediately turning to palliative care for her as she transitioned from this life to the next. I honestly could not wrap my mind around it. But then we found out that there was one living survivor of her condition. This made the situation hopeful but vastly more complicated. For various reasons, specific to her diagnosis and condition, we decided through prayer to try to give her a chance at life. Help came from various and unexpected directions. Dozens of people are responsible for saving her life and many more just helped along the way. The rest of the pregnancy was a bit crazy as I had to drive from Oakland to Los Angeles weekly for the treatments and we had a 4 and 2 year old already. But she made it through the pregnancy and came out screaming! However, less than 24 hours later we got a call from the NICU nurse saying “she has taken a turn for the worst.” They wheeled her into surgery, and we thought we were going to lose her again. She made it again! In her first week of life though, some dear family friends unexpectedly lost their kindergarten daughter to some medical issues. The family right next to us in the NICU also lost their daughter. After about 4 months in the NICU (which we had been prepared for), she was able to transition home. In the context of the NICU, she was eventually a bit of a star. Over our course of being there in the group setting (not private) hospital rooms, we made friends with other families which was comforting, but did, at times, add the additional pain of seeing other babies not make it. We were so glad to finally bring her home and so sad for all the parents we had seen lose their children along the way. We were also far from out of the woods.
At home the medical journey continued for the next few years, always 5 steps forward and 2 steps back as one doctor had warned us. The first year was in and out of the hospital all the time. Very gradually, things started to move into a new normal that was mostly sustainable for just 2 parents and the usual outside help (preschool, family, etc.). Our church at the time was amazingly generous in helping us through this ordeal with their time, meals, gifts, a driver to get our kids to preschool. When my sister became a living organ donor for us, the church covered her mortgage for 3 months and supported her family with an endless meal train. What a model of Christian generosity! We feel nothing but gratitude and warmth toward them so it was an especially odd time, in that regard, to be feeling such a pull toward Orthodoxy.
A few years after her birth, we could see a light at the end of the tunnel and were anxious to return to life as we previously had known it but with the addition of one more child with some special needs. Unfortunately, as my nerves and our lives were starting to calm down from being in a prolonged crisis mode, we met a young man in the neighborhood one day who asked inappropriate questions about my 2 year old daughter and later tracked us down through social media. He started stalking us. We got a 5 year restraining order, but since he was mentally disabled, there was little the law could do for us. I was scared out of my “right mind” because he had found our home address.
My research into Orthodoxy began for dozens of reasons, but when I finally darkened the doors of an actual church, it was under the weight of these particular events. When I would leave the church (still a seeker or catechumen), I would once again be in my right mind and at peace – at least, for a few days. I had never prayed to saints before exploring Orthodoxy. The first one I prayed to was Archangel Michael for protection. Though there were numerous other reasons for embracing the Orthodox faith, the part I’ve shared here was the shoehorn that got us in. Had we not been living so far outside our comfort zone for so long prior, we would have found many excuses for putting it off temporarily or permanently. The depth and fullness of Christianity I’ve experienced since entering into the fullness of the Church, has been amazing. It is a very deep well that holistically floods all of creation and a person’s life, from the body to the soul. It puts the fragmented one back together as a whole person uniting to God. Salvation is about healing. It’s about doing–but ultimately about being and becoming. I am grateful for the four decades as an Evangelical Christian that prepared me for Orthodoxy, and I am grateful for taking this step to continue on the path that I had already been on to deepen my relationship with Christ and now also with the Theotokos and the saints. I hope and pray that many more will join us on this journey of a lifetime, through and to life.
Mary Vanessa Hisert