I mean literally speaks! Or kind of. Or… once again, just keep reading.
This is the last week I’ll focus on my experiences. Promise. For a while – because you new readers haven’t heard about Saint Nektarios.
Last week we left it with me a deeply frustrated Episcopalian priest, sure now I must be Orthodox but having no idea how to get here.
And with Saint Nicholas hanging on the wall of my Episcopal church “making faces” at me, so to speak. I don’t mean to be irreverent, but that’s what was happening. (Read last week’s Post, if you haven’t)
We ended with the day when I, feeling just desperate, went up to his icon – and he was looking so disgustingly pleased with himself. And I cried “How can you hang up there looking so smug, while I’m so miserable.” And then.. .
Saint Nicholas tells me about Saint Nicholas Church.
I mean literally told me “Saint Nicholas Orthodox Church is coming. It will happen.” Did I hear words audibly? No, it wasn’t like that. Not at all. It was like… I don’t know what it was like. Again I can’t describe it. But it was words, and a prediction – which somehow he planted in my mind. I know that afterwards I stared at him for a long while. And then I kept it to myself. I don’t know when I first told anybody. This time I really was afraid people would think I had gone over the edge.
I told you a couple of Posts back that in my life I’ve had times when I just “knew” certain things. This wasn’t like that. This was different. This was “words”. And this also was the last of my experiences of this sort. This was their culmination, I guess
Are some of you beginning to wonder if I am a nutcase? I hope not. Really, by the grace of God, I’ve had some strange and wonderful experiences in my life. Brothers and sisters, we need to be very careful about such things. They can come not from God but from other sources which can lead us far astray. How do I know these were of God? Because, looking back, they all “panned out” and all led to something good and true. That’s why I believe the hand of God and his saints was in them. Please be clear: None of this happened because of my virtue, God knows, or because I am a contemplative mystic or something, which I definitely am not.
OK, that’s more than enough talking about that. We need to move on.
This time I knew deep within me that Saint Nicholas Church was going to happen. I was absolutely sure. Was I therefore full of trust and confidence? No way! I was scared and very worried. How would this come to pass? How would it affect me? my family? my parish? I had no idea. But I never was able to doubt that his church was coming, and that he was in charge of it. And after Saint Nicholas Church, Cedarburg, Wisconsin, was established three years later (31 years ago, now), I never was able to worry about it. There were times when there was every reason to worry. I knew I should worry, but I couldn’t do it. (I wish this had been true in the rest of my life!) Because Saint Nicholas, Cedarburg, is his church, Saint Nicholas’ Church. He is in charge of it. He looks after it.
But we’re way ahead of the story.
Saint Nicholas withdraws, leaving me to try to figure it out.
Now, for some years I had to go on faith that Nicholas was working on this – though there were some little “miracles” along the way.
For a while I thought what I should try to do was turn my Episcopal parish into an Orthodox church. I tried to “condition” people, though I was scared to tell them what I was up to. (Unwise approach, looking back. I should have been direct about it.) I began to teach “straight” Orthodox theology. I made changes in our church interior: wrought iron arches on our altar rail which I thought someday could become a simple icon screen, Byzantine angels in stained glass windows. I altered our Mass and made it more Orthodox, not cheating at all on the directions in the new more “free-form” Prayer Book rubrics. Hey, when it said “a hymn” could be sung at the Breaking of the Bread before Communions, why not “It is truly meet to bless thee, O Theotokos”?
That all worked ok till the bishop came to visit and saw – and also I refused to receive Communion from him, because, well, I wasn’t in Communion with him anymore. He blew a gasket! And the Episcopal Church was diocesan; the Diocese of Milwaukee owned our church and property. (Instead of gracefully letting dissident parishes go, for years the Episcopal Church fought tooth and nail to hang onto property. I wish they had instead fought tooth and nail to hang onto the Faith.) So I wasn’t going to be able to pull my parish into the Orthodox Church.
In 1987, Father Thomas Hopko (“memory eternal”) spoke in Milwaukee, and I went to hear him. He presented the Faith simply and clearly and spoke, not with with pretense, but like a guy you might meet at a local bar (or “pub” as we call them in Wisconsin), except that he also occasionally broke into one or another of several classical languages in order to clarify something. Wow! This was what I had been wanting for the last 25 years.
Meanwhile, I made contact with some local Orthodox clergy. Most were very encouraging, but this presented a problem. If somehow I was to start an Orthodox mission, which jurisdiction should I join? It’s a shame. Newcomers should not have to choose. Orthodox friends in other jurisdictions get hurt in the process. We need one American Orthodox Church. In God’s good time, I guess.
I was invited to an Orthodox clergy conference in Chicago, and there was Father Tom again as featured speaker. He spent his entire “rest” time talking with me. (He was like that with many people – a wonderfully kind and generous man.) He told me that in the Orthodox Church there is “total theological agreement”. (I couldn’t imagine such a thing, but he was right.) He told me that if my heart was set on being a valiant defender of the Faith I should stay Anglican. If I turned Orthodox I’d just be one of the guys. That sounded great! and it has been.
One afternoon somebody suggested we go over to Saint Nicholas Albanian Church and visit the Weeping Icon of the Theotokos. What?! thought I. So we did. (I checked behind the icon screen – there were no hoses.) Somehow the visit inspired me to come home and start speaking publicly about becoming Orthodox. When my Bishop heard about that… I don’t have to tell you. It was only later that I realized the significance of the fact that the icon had been at Saint Nicholas Church.
Courtesy of Saint Nicholas Albanian Orthodox Church, Chicago
I thought the biggest problem, as I said last week, was convincing my wife. I was afraid to bring up the subject for fear she’d say No. She and another woman from my parish went to a local Orthodox church for instruction classes. When Dianna came home she said nothing, and still I was afraid to ask. Some while later we had lunch with traditionalist Episcopalian friends who said they would stay Episcopalian till “the last dog died”. (They didn’t.) And then Dianna laid Orthodoxy all over them – how this was the true Church, the original Church, the only answer. (Father Peter Gillquist later described her as a “Shiite Orthodox”!) I sat in wonder and just listened. She was on board!
I can’t remember at what point in the process I was, but I was feeling very discouraged. Saint Nicholas Church seemed to be taking so long to arrive, and I still couldn’t see how it was going to happen.) I walked out to the mailbox, and there was a note: “Dear Father Bill, I know everything is going to work out right. I’m praying for you. in Christ, Father Tom.” I swear, when I opened that envelope the Holy Spirit flew out. I pray for that man’s soul every day and always will.
A saying of Father Tom Hopko, courtesy of Pravmir
In the spring of 1987 I took a trip East to visit a formerly-Episcopalian now-Orthodox friend. I needed to be sure that Orthodoxy was what it claimed to be. (I’d made that mistake before.) We talked with clergy, visited parish, monastery, seminary. We heard a debate between Father Hopko and Father John Meyendorff, moderated by Bishop Kallistos Ware – who later helped me carry my books to the train. (Am I allowed another “Wow”?) Yes, Orthodoxy was for real.
That summer the Antiochian Archdiocese was sponsoring a “Missiona and Evangelism Conference” in Santa Barbara. I really wanted to go but thought I couldn’t afford it. One morning after Mass a woman came up and handed me an envelope, saying “I don’t why know I’m doing this, but I’ve been praying, and I have to”. When I opened it, it contained exactly the amount of money I needed to go to the Conference, including the airfare! (She later became Orthodox.)
At the Conference I met Father Peter Gillquist (“memory eternal”), chairman of the Antiochian Department of Evangelism, who gave me the practical guidance I sought, and I knew which jurisdiction I should join.
Image courtesy of Pravoslavia
I am, believe it or not, skipping much of the story. Suffice it to say that I told Father Peter I was waiting for a sign from God to tell me when I should bail out and become Orthodox. Right after Easter 1989 my Episcopalian bishop fired me – actually gave me a choice between resignation and ecclesiastical trial for “apostacy”. Despite the fact that I was terrified I also started to laugh: “Apostacy” – this is a denomination that tolerated bishops who denied Jesus Christ?! I called Father Peter and told him “I’ve got my sign.” I resigned, and there I was unemployed for the first time in my adult life. I was very scared.
That summer we pulled a little group of Episcopalians and Orthodox together. In September, Auxiliary Bishop Antoun (yet another “memory eternal”) of the Antiochian Archdiocese came and chrismated us, and he ordained me. Our new church was founded. What Saint Nicholas had told me came to pass.
Saint Nicholas re-emerges.
Then Metropolitan Philip (“memory eternal”) named us Saint Nicholas Church. And Father Tom – here he comes again, God bless that man – even though he did not know about our Saint Nicholas connection, sent us a relic of guess who? Saint Nicholas. A few years later we bought a former Lutheran building which needed some “Orthodoxifying”. We decided that when that was done we would have our first services on the soonest major feast day which was, of course, Saint Nicholas Day. And when our treasury on occasion ran dry, the money always arrived just in time from somewhere. This happened so often that our treasurer called it “The Saint Nicholas Factor”. (It still works.) And when one time something major threatened the existence of our new church and I didn’t know what to do, I bribed Saint Nicholas. I paid $100 for a candle and lit it before him. Within about two hours, everything cleared up. Have you heard enough? I think you’ve got the picture. We founders all worked our tails off for this church, believe me. But this is Saint Nicholas’ Church.
Looking back, I think that about the year 1985 AD Earth Time, the Lord Jesus must have said to Saint Nichoilas: “We need an Orthodox Church on the north side of Milwaukee. Go work on this Olnhausen fellow. He’s an easy target.”
Today his Saint Nicholas Church, Cedarburg, is an established parish, and as I said last week, “that icon” (if I may show you again) presides at the entrance to his church, recently enclosed behind glass lest his holy face disappear entirely from 31 years of being kissed. I’ve tried to see if his expression changes now. It doesn’t.
Just one more story. After all this had happened, Khouria Dianna and I went to Milwaukee Irish Fest – the biggest Irish festival in the world, in Milwaukee! We came across a chart where people could check out the derivation of Irish names. My mother’s maiden name was Collins, so I looked. It said Collins, derivative of Nicholas. Once again, all I could do was stare. Had Saint Nicholas somehow been working on this even before I was born…?
I am writing these words on December 6, Saint Nicholas Day, 2020 – 35 years after this story began. I’m old and long retired now. I am still as sure as ever that this is Saint Nicholas’ Church, and no matter what happens he will always look after it. When we sing his Troparion “O Father and hierarch Nicholas…intercede with Christ our God that our souls may be saved” – O dear Lord Jesus and Your servant Saint Nicholas, you know that I mean it with all my heart. You have greatly blessed me.
from Orthodox Christian Chants (English, Greek, Arabic)
Next Week: Peculiar Things at the Altar
Week after next: JESUS