The New Christians

A couple weeks ago, I hypothesized that Rod’s disdain for SSM has something to do with his conversion to Orthodoxy — actually, to the kind of personality that would convert to Orthodoxy. In response to that post, I was contacted by an old friend, Claudia Mair Burney, aka Ragamuffin Diva.

I just got another book in the mail yesterday that caricatured emergent as a bunch of white guys with goatees. Mair is not white, and the last time I saw her, she did not have a goatee 🙂  But she is a novelist, and her books are highly regarded.

Neither is Mair a Protestant (any more). She moved to the Orthodox Church, and then to Catholicism. I am so, so glad that she accepted my invitation to write about her faith journey. Take the time to read this post, and you will be, too.

Wow. I found the comments about the beginning of our conversation interesting. I thought I should clarify why I wrote you in the first place. This is what you said, Tony:

“I have known a number of people who’ve converted to Orthodoxy, and it does seem to attract a certain type of person who, at some deep level, is looking for an enclosed system of belief — the most-bounded of bounded sets.”

I was not one of those people, for the most part. Oh sure, an enclosed system had some claudia mair burney.jpgappeal. I cut my spiritual teeth in the Black Pentecostal Church, and flew promptly into the Word of Faith movement after that. I was a teenager, if that helps, broke, and more than a little stormy on the inside. The idea that God would give me whatever I named and claimed was most attractive at the time. For a little while. Then, just as I did with the Pentecostal Church, I hit a ceiling. There was only so much my shouting, naming, and claiming was doing for my soul. Not to mention things got really weird. The fact is, I’ve gone through a lot of church crazy, and when all was said and done, I survived it, and just wanted more of Jesus.

I stayed in that thin, thirsty place for years until the Holy Spirit, through some pretty extraordinary events led me into Orthodoxy, big ‘O’. The same Spirit later led me to embrace the Roman Catholic Church which I’d grown to love. I wish I didn’t have to choose between the two, but I did for a lot of sad reasons, and that too is an interesting tale. At the very least, you’ll get something out of it, Tony. Sometimes, people just don’t listen to the poor, crazy, black woman, who sounds kinda flaky. Think of me as a holy fool, still working on the holy part. I don’t have to be counted amongst the Orthodox faithful or “learned” to tell a pilgrim tale. I’m not passing myself off as anything but what I am: a ragamuffin, but that doesn’t mean my story can’t be informative. I’m grateful to you all for listening. But I don’t want anyone to mistake what this is. I’m not going to critique Orthodoxy, nor am I going to trash it. I’m going to tell you how I got there, and why I’m in full communion with the Roman Catholic Church today. It’s simple story, but Jesus loved those, so please, bear with me.

Now, about that closed system…

I could write a memoir about my church experiences that would make James Frey say, “You’re so lying, Mair.” Only every word would be true. I longed for stability, so I don’t have a problem with people who come to Orthodoxy for those reasons. To come out of the crazy and into an ark like big ‘T’ Tradition sounds heavenly to the battered and bruised spiritually, but the real reason I begged for my place at the banquet table of Eastern Orthodoxy was the Eucharist. A God I could eat up was not something I was going to miss out on, and it was the Holy Spirit St_Photina.jpgWho drew me to this amazing experience of Christ. There was no big, intellectual pursuit of Truth. Life has been too hard for me. I can’t seem to find that level of certainty anywhere, and those who said they had it (almost everybody, everywhere I went) had outrageous blind spots. No, what I had was a Samaritan woman thing going on. Sure, I was a Christian, but I was still pretty thirsty. Jesus was standing before me really present in the Eucharist saying, “Come.” And I did. Nothing would have stopped me.

I’ve mentioned I read your book, The Sacred Way. It was magnificent to me because it laid out the classic disciplines of the Church as if they were a gift for all of us. Let me backtrack a bit. Years ago, when I was a teen, it was J.D. Salinger who introduced me to the Jesus Prayer! He compelled me to read The Way of a Pilgrim, and since the Orthodox faithful weren’t beating my door down to evangelize or teach me, and it was highly unlikely I’d beat down theirs, God used Salinger to give me something that was mine. I think Frederica has a point when she says some things can only be known from within Orthodoxy. They really do clarify such matters, but come on. The Holy Spirit is, dare I say it, out of control. God does whatever He wants to, moving in and outside of Tradition. If He wants to give me the Jesus Prayer via Salinger, and other disciplines through your books the year I turned forty, who am I to argue? You’ve reached so many people, pointing them to the Ancient Church. The Holy Spirit does the rest. I thank God for you, Tony.

And then came Phyllis Tickle, who told me about the Eucharist. She isn’t Eastern Orthodox either, but God used her to radically change my life. I told my lapsed, cradle Catholic husband shortly after I met Phyllis that I was going to become a Catholic. He laughed in my face the thought was so ludicrous, but the truth is, I couldn’t become Catholic because of all those Jack T. Chick tracts I read as a kid. But I could become Orthodox (once I found out via the Holy Spirit/Google it existed) without having to worry about Popes and Immaculate Conceptions and such. I was all in!

I read the books. I went to conferences. I walked beside lovely, loving Orthodox people, including Frederica, who nurtured me in the faith. But I couldn’t shake my love for the Roman Catholic Church, which actually blazed in my soul more brightly and beautifully because of Orthodoxy. Soon it became clear that there were Eastern Saints and Western Saints, and for many, they were not one big happy family in heaven. That was so weird to me. Someone even told me to ditch St. Francis because, “We have St. Seraphim.” But I dug St. Francis! And St. John of the Cross, and St. Theresa of Avila. I think it’s telling that when I had my children baptized in an Orthodox Church Sts. Francis and Clare of Assisi were their patron saints. I should have known then my Eastern Orthodox days were numbered then, but I didn’t.

The fact is, in my heart we were all God’s people, East and West. We could say the Creed with confidence. I didn’t worry about the Filioque. I’ve looked at a lot of East/West discussions on the matter, and the differences seem kinda semantic to me, I’m sorry to say. That just wouldn’t stop us from being One to me. My best friend novelist, Lisa Samson and I use to say the two of us healed the Great Schism. I loved my icons, incense, Divine Liturgy, and Jesus Prayer, and so did she. And I loved her Daily Mass, Lectio Divina, Ignatian Prayer of the Imagination, and Pope John Paul the Great. All of it was spread out like a feast before us. And we consumed all of it, passionately.

And then came that review of Mariette in Ecstasy, and this idea that if stigmata didn’t happen in the history of the Orthodox Church it wasn’t from God. And then came the trashing of St. Francis, and Thomas Merton, and Henri Nouwen, men who nourished me. I knew they had their faults, but so did churches stuck in ethnic ghettos, and systems that were pretty inaccessible to people like me, people who Jesus loves, and I couldn’t seem to extract the Orthodoxy from the Greek, Romanian, and Russian experience. The only time I felt like I could really truly be Orthodox was when I was with my friends at the Ancient Christianity and African American conference. This isn’t the experience of everyone, but it was mine. I was Western through and through. My library said it, my ability to practice my spirituality said it, and my heart said it. I came into full communion with the Catholic Church amid much persecution. I feel I am still orthodox, small ‘o’. Many would disagree. Might I add my idea of Catholic, big or small ‘c’ is wildly expanded now.

What did all this teach me? What did my life teach me? God came near to this ragamuffin when I was fifteen, at a revival meeting in the Church of God in Christ. There I learned that God is present! He is moving today. Right now. I know this! It’s how my journey began. Later, in similar churches, I’d learn how this reality could be badly abused. High emotion could be mistaken for the Holy Spirit, and pride, of the spiritual kind, would precede a lot of destruction I’d witness. I found a safe haven in the little Emergent Church I found in Ann Arbor, after I’d been thoroughly beat up by the Charismatic Protestant faithful.

There I rested in God’s love, until I found the Ragamuffin Gospel, learned that Catholics aren’t the Whore of Babylon, and they really are Christians, and made my way to the Vineyard, which was kinda like Ancient Church lite, but I loved it. Got my first prayer book, the Divine Hours, from Ken Wilson. And then I wanted to dive full into the deep waters. I swam and swam, not so thirsty now, with the Eucharist in my DNA now. When an Orthodox priest preaching on the Lord’s Prayer broke down give us this day our daily bread, I knew I need the Eucharist daily, and since I’m not living in a monastery, I’m Roman Catholic. I swam to the Tiber! Now, my dear friend Phyllis insists I’m Anglican and don’t know it yet, but since I don’t know it, I’m one happy Roman Catholic. Jesus was everywhere with me, every step of this journey, as omnipresent as ever.

Jesus prayed for our oneness, a very mysterious prayer. How will it happen? Look at the mess! It’s impossible, but I believe it will happen anyway, if only because Jesus prayed it, and He wanted it so badly. I believe the marks of the Church Jesus started is that whole, One, Holy, Apostolic thing. But what of those who have no experience with that? And what about the Churches horrible failures and the poor souls she herself ruined? Jesus loves us all. I am radically trusting Him to bring His own Body together. I don’t have to figure it out.

This is what I have to do, stand on the side of love, doggedly honest and authentic. Hold on to that Creed! I love it, but I’m willing to stay in conversation and prayer until all our voices are heard, even the babies and fools. I’m willing to hash it out, until it all works out. We have so much more in common than our differences! Mostly, I’m wiling to let God be God and do what He wants to with His people. And only He decides who His people are. He said Himself He had folks of another flock. Again, my job is to love, first and foremost. Part of that is listening, giving, and being willing to acknowledge that we all see through a glass darkly. We need each other.

I so appreciate you giving me a voice here. May God bless and keep you, look you full in the face, smile at you, and grant you peace.

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