Deborah’s Journey to Orthodoxy

A few years ago I realized that I was having trouble seeing. I went to the doctor and found out that I needed surgery. I felt as if he had hit me across the midsection with a baseball bat. I immediately knew I was in trouble. I couldn’t handle the idea of submitting to surgery. I knew I needed help and began to work with a psychologist friend who determined that I was experiencing a post-traumatic stress response to an eye surgery that I’d had as a young child. I decided to get away to be alone with God. I searched and chose a small Benedictine monastery for retreat.

I came to Christianity as a young adult, initially as a Protestant. For years I had felt drawn to the Virgin Mary, but found myself unable to approach her as more than a historical figure; the idea of “praying to” Mary or the saints was somewhat repugnant to me. Prior to leaving for the monastery, however, I searched online for a medal of her and for an appropriate saint for my eye problems. My searches led me to Roman Catholic sources where I found two beautiful vintage medals – one of Mary and one of St. Lucy, which I secretly began to wear on a chain.

I tried talking to the saints and writing my own prayers, but found myself unable to experience connection. I continued to wear both of the medals for comfort and out of hope. As I gazed at my little St. Lucy medal and pondered her, I knew that I needed healing for my spiritual vision too, in order to move forward into surgery. I prayed daily for physical and spiritual healing.

At the end of my retreat, the nun who had been my spiritual director during my stay told me about the icon painting retreats offered there. I later returned to the monastery for an iconography retreat and found myself experiencing a spiritual depth that defied my ability to verbally articulate. Six months later I attended another. I was left with many questions about the icons. My instructor was an excellent iconographer, but he couldn’t help with my questions.

Deborah with Fr. Vasili and Presvytera Maria Hillhouse at her parish in Anchorage, Alaska.

Later, I traveled to attend yet another retreat – this time with an iconographer who was a deacon at a small Russian Orthodox Church. I came to the conclusion that I didn’t understand icons because I didn’t know enough of my own faith history, so I went to my local Christian bookstore and picked up a little concise pocketbook of Christian history to take with me on that trip.

The iconographer invited the class to attend Vespers. Their priest was out of town, so the iconographer-deacon and his wife led a readers’ service. I didn’t really understand the service, but found it quite beautiful. It was my first time having all of my senses fully engaged in a church service and I found myself pulled in many beautiful directions.

While we worked on our class materials that week, the instructor would stop three times daily to chant the hours. We were invited to join him or continue working; there was no pressure. It felt foreign to me and yet at the same time compelling. His focus during class time was not on Orthodoxy, but on paint, lines, shapes, colors and light. I asked questions about the Orthodox faith, which he welcomed. He gave us a tour of the church and allowed us time to explore the icons there.

One of the things that was new to me was the idea of lighting candles and praying for the deceased. My father had recently died, and since this was not something I had encountered in my Protestant faith I had a very hard time understanding and accepting this. I struggled with it for many months.

I grew up near a Greek community in Florida, so, it made sense to take my questions and struggles to the local Greek Orthodox church in Anchorage. I attended the Greek Festival and toured the church just before leaving for that last retreat. I was deeply moved by the icons there and kept thinking about them. I made an appointment and met with the priest, who talked with me and invited me to attend services. I chose an aisle seat with an easy and quick route of escape should it become “too much” for me. It was many weeks before I began to understand the words and phrases I was hearing in the services – the cadence of the chants and songs were foreign to my ear and there was a certain amount of acoustic echo. When I found myself unable to hear and understand, my senses of sight and smell were engaged with the incense and icons.

I struggled with many questions and had a very hard time with the vast differences I found between Orthodoxy and my old Protestant understanding. I continued meeting with the priest and began reading books about Orthodoxy.

I came into adulthood with some significant childhood wounds, most notably, regarding my relationship with my mother. My chosen seat just happened to be right in front of The Annunciation icon of The Theotokos. I hadn’t studied icons of Mary yet, so I didn’t realize what I was seeing for several months. I began to interact more with that icon and understand what it was about, and one Sunday I was surprised to experience a very dramatic healing of my heart with regard to that childhood wound. I found myself fully able to relate to The Theotokos in a rich, living way.

The icons led me to Orthodoxy and Orthodoxy keeps leading me back to the icons and saints who continue to teach me. I’m learning so much and am quite sure I’ll spend the rest of my life being surprised by what Orthodoxy offers me. It’s amazing to experience God’s beauty and grace in the sacraments and liturgy, and I find myself so glad and grateful to be here.