My life as a Greek Orthodox Christian began with great pomp and circumstance, when just two weeks after I made my debut into the world, a priest gravely dipped me into an old, ornate basin of holy water and cleansed me of my sins. I must admit at the outset that I was on very bad behavior throughout my Baptism. My family is fond of reminding me that my indignant wails pierced the air of the church for the duration of the ceremony, and my godmother insists that even the priest heaved a sigh of relief as he completed his task of indoctrinating me into the Brotherhood of Christ.
I recount this particular anecdote with no intention of cheapening the sacraments; on the contrary, I mean to explain— albeit facetiously—the beginning of my complicated struggle to appreciate and understand my faith. I am a steadfast Christian today, but my surety has come only after having faltered at the border of that shadowy region where God seems to fade away. I am not familiar with most of the intricacies and paradoxes of the Bible, and I cannot quote Scripture at will, but I do know the simple truth that it feels right to give myself to Christ—largely because I have experienced the listlessness and desperation of a consuming doubt. I write today not so much for those fortunate in the blessing of a strong conviction or for the biblical scholar; rather, I hope to reach some of those who stumble where I floundered, who are flustered in their search for a meaning that eludes them.
Everyone’s relationship with God is intensely personal, and the criteria of my spiritual fulfillment differ from those of my parents, my siblings, and my friends. My early Christian environment was in no way flawed; it only failed somehow to resonate with me. By describing my own search for truth, I do not intend to dissuade anyone from the spirituality that suits them; rather, I hope primarily to encourage the dissatisfied to persevere on their troubled paths to God.
In the Greek Orthodox Church, Baptism transpires concurrently with First Communion and Confirmation. As my disgruntled howling rose to the rafters, I simultaneously shed the Original Sin, received the sacrament of the Eucharist, and—by the tacit consent of being present at the ceremony—declared myself a true member of Greek Orthodoxy. While I respect that many people feel rightfully fulfilled by this formula, I struggled personally with the situation as soon as I matured enough to ponder it. I lamented that I had not made the choice of my religion, and my passive acceptance of something imposed on me externally planted the seed of religious uncertainties that burdened me for years.
At the beginning, I tried to conform to what I had been labeled. I went to Greek school and learned the Lord’s Prayer in Greek by mimicking the sounds of a language I could not understand, but my spirituality felt both false and forced. I gleaned no meaning from the church services conducted all in Greek, but I continued to hum earnestly along with the choir as they chanted ancient hymns—waiting with a dying hope for the moment when I might finally feel God. I could not find the transcendent link from me to Christ in the ceremony and the ambiance of the Greek Church. For many years, though, I did not expand my search beyond its borders. I had been confirmed in my faith; if going through the motions of religion left me with an emptiness, I concluded that that void must have been an eternal hollowness in me. I stood frozen in quiet resignation as I gradually lost the Lord in imperfect translation, failing to see beyond the swirling smoke of censers and stained-glass-filtered light. Because I allowed myself to stay bounded by a structure I had not chosen and that did not resonate with me, I mistook one perception of Christianity for the entirety, and nearly abandoned the faith.
I tell the story of my personal struggle because I see within it the symptoms of a larger social phenomenon. In recent years it has come increasingly into vogue for individuals to distance themselves from Christianity as such, to declare their opposition to the institutional nature of organized religion. A detached and more freeform spirituality has been on the rise, as the structures of traditional religion have been exchanged for vague acknowledgements of a higher power. While I understand that agnosticism and other nonreligious spiritual orientations offer many people the satisfaction they seek, I contend from personal experience that some who subscribe to these philosophies acutely feel the absence of the definite God from Whom they could have drawn their strength. Frustrated by some quality of their traditional religion, but also unsatisfied by the alternative they adopt to replace it, these defeated searchers sink into the religious apathy that permeates much of our generation. But this downward spiral away from God is not the inevitable result of personal dissatisfaction with Christianity. In my case, and perhaps for others, the crippling crisis of faith ultimately revealed itself to be only a crisis of agency masquerading as something more.
Feeling defeated, desperate, and alone one night, I promised to give religion one final chance; only this time, I made the strangely freeing decision not to return to my old church. I was not entirely aware of what was missing for me there, but I knew that it could never offer me the support I needed. I began to try new churches with different approaches, and while I still have not quite found the perfect fit, I derive a profound and soothing satisfaction from the elusive something I am working to understand. Agency is the antidote to apathy, and giving up is giving in. That is the final message I hope to convey to those peering wearily over the edge: look more deeply, engage more completely, and—most importantly— push more forcefully beyond the boundaries that constrain. My suggestion is admittedly a tall order; it is certainly difficult to chase after a goal without knowing the real nature of what we hope to find. But that is what faith is all about. We try our best to understand a God whose perfection is beyond our comprehension, and we attempt to puzzle out the nature of our relationship to Him. In pursuit of understanding, faith is never passive, never “given.” Few external forces have the power to define its particulars for us; we need to discover for ourselves how we best fit into the scheme, but—luckily—there is a deep and peaceful power in the search. None of us knows precisely where we are going or how we ought to get there, but we should all draw strength and meaning from the challenging journey that leads us closer to the truth.
Kevin Jonke ’09 is a Social Studies concentrator in Straus.