A Lenten Journey to Love
by Matthew Gallatin
As a young child, Nick Damascus loved watching priests deliver their homilies from the pulpit. His little heart would stir, and he would say to himself, I want to do that! I want to stand up there and say, "Hey, you people! Wake up! God loves you!" Fifty years later, Nick is indeed a zealous messenger of God. Oh, he's never preached a homily. But he does share his Orthodox faith in an uncommonly vibrant way with anyone who will give him half a chance.
What many of those to whom he ministers may not know, however, is that the genuine sincerity, peace, and spiritual insight he exudes are relatively new to Nick. For much of the half-century since his days of childhood fervor, Nick wandered without purpose, searching for a sense of meaning. He could not find it in the Church. Neither did he discover it in worldly success and affluence.
But one year ago, during the holy season of Lent, God worked a miracle in the life of Nick Damascus. It was a quiet and gentle miracle, without lightning or fanfare. Yet by the Holy Spirit, through the divine power of the sacraments and the Lenten services, God transformed this man. Journeying through the weeks and liturgical beauty of the Great Fast, Nick joyously discovered the life of divine love that "surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:7).
An Orthodox Child of the 50s and 60s
Nick was born into a Greek home, and raised in an ethnic Greek Orthodox parish. But unlike some his age, Nick did not rebel against his ethnic identity and its traditions. He fully embraced them.
Nick also embraced his Orthodox faith. Unfortunately, he understood his faith only as part of his cultural identity, and as "a good set of values." Nick laments that in that era, Orthodox believers in America typically received very little teaching about the deep spiritual realities of their faith. Thus, he had no inkling that his faith could actually lead him into an intimate relationship with the living Christ.
But despite the fact that "the spiritual tone wasn't there," Nick remained committed. During the 70s and early 80s, as he and his wife, Mary, were blessed with children (Eleni, Michael, and Anna), he felt compelled to take an active role in church leadership. He sat on the parish council, and was a youth leader.
Nick, however, is quick to point out that the motivation for these activities was not an inner longing to serve Christ. He simply felt that he needed "to set a good example" for his wife and children. He knew that church life ought to be of supreme importance, even if it wasn't filling the ever growing and gnawing emptiness in his soul.
The truth is, Nick had begun turning to secular means for feeding his inner hunger. He invested in properties, and owned a tavern, a restaurant, and a property management company. Nick's life became a twenty-four-hour-a-day commitment to financial success. Indeed, he achieved it.
But Nick was also finding that "busy" doesn't mean "happy." Nick observes: "When you are unaware that every blessing comes from God, success is a curse. Instead of bringing peace and stability, it disrupts your life more and more." As his businesses sucked up his time, attention, and energy, his marriage began to suffer. So did his relationship with his children. And still there was the restlessness, churning away inside, never giving him a moment's peace.
The 90s came, with no new promise of meaning. Nick was growing more and more affluent, and more and more despondent. Nothing touched his soul; nothing made him feel alive. Nick remembers, "I felt like a zombie, just one of the walking dead."
He began smoking again, twenty-two years after he'd quit, just to soothe his inner turmoil. Then a more insidious and vicious demon enslaved him. He fell heavily into gambling.
It was understandable. The rush of the risk, the tension, the exhilaration, the anticipation, the fear-he could feel these. For many years, Nick yielded to the drives of his addiction. Despite the strain on his finances, and the impact his behavior was having on his relationships, he couldn't quit.
Then one day in late 2002, something compelled Nick to take a good look at himself. He didn't like what he saw. Gambling was destroying him; he could see that now. If he didn't stop, he would lose everything-his businesses, his family, himself. So he made a New Year's resolution. On January 1, 2003, he would quit gambling. Amazingly, he did just that. At the time, Nick chalked up the defeat of his old vice to his own stalwart willpower. But in his choice to stop gambling, Nick had opened a door for God. And the God Who loves Nick, and gave His life to save him, was going to take every advantage of the opportunity.
It had been years since Nick had gone to church with any sort of regularity. But a month after he quit gambling, Nick decided to attend a special presentation at his parish. Father Daniel Byantoro, the founder of the Orthodox Church in Indonesia, was to speak on his conversion to Orthodox Christianity from Islam.
The idea of someone converting to Orthodoxy was puzzling for Nick. Well into his adult life, he had firmly endeavored to live by the principles and dictates of his faith. Yet it had left him empty.
Of course, he had subscribed to an Orthodox life because he had been born into the Church. He didn't know anything else. But here was Father Daniel, who had courageously chosen the Orthodox way. In fact, as Nick looked around the church that night, he saw a host of converts to the Faith. He was having a hard time fathoming why these people would give up other religions, or other forms of Christianity, for the sake of a Church that had failed him so.
But then, Nick opened another door to God. He asked himself, Could it be that they see something here I've never seen? Could it be that I have missed something?
Under the inspiration of Father Daniel's testimony, Nick picked up a copy of Clark Carlton's The Faith. Leafing through it, his eyes fell upon the chapter on the Holy Trinity. Nick read it, and reread it. For the next week, over and over, he devoured that chapter.
What was in that chapter that gripped him so? For the first time, Carlton's words had given Nick a true picture of Who God is. He had heard before that "God is love." But now, he began to understand what that means.
The Trinity-the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit-exist as a community. But in that community, they are also inseparably one. How is that possible? It is an unfathomable mystery. But one thing we can know: it is a mystery of love. The three Persons of the Godhead are perfectly and indivisibly joined by the infinite, incomprehensible love they mutually share. That is why we say that God is love. Even if God had never produced creatures to love, love would still exist. It forms the very fabric of the Divine life.
So Nick began to see that when God bids us to love Him, He is calling us to something more than a set of moral standards, or a body of theological beliefs. Astoundingly, He is inviting us to become a part of what He is. By His grace, we may be drawn into the intimate communion of the Godhead. When compared to that, everything else that we may do to bring meaning to our lives pales to insignificance.
The beauty of this truth was quietly unfolding in Nick. And he responded to it: "I had no miraculous visions. I felt no electric jolt. But I felt warmth in my heart, an awareness of a presence I had never felt before. All I could think was, 'I want to draw near to God.'"
But how was he to do that? Well, Lent was coming. In fact, Nick had set the first Sunday of Lent as the day he would give up his other nagging vice-smoking. Now, he had the thought: Why don't I make another Lenten promise? Why don't I commit myself to attending every single church service during Lent? Maybe that will bring me closer to Christ. While Nick had come to recognize that the rites and traditions of the Church are not the goal of the Faith, he still rightly looked to the practices of Orthodoxy as the true Apostolic, God-ordained path to intimacy with God.
Nick thus began his Lenten journey. Of course, the first challenge he faced was the sheer number of services during the Great Fast. Nick's church attendance had been minimal for years. He had never done anything like this before!
Not only were the services many; they were also long. That concerned him a little. Nick had always been one who constantly looked at his watch in church, impatient for the services to be over. So he was very surprised to find that, right from the beginning of this Lent, time didn't seem to matter to him. Caught up in the divine timelessness of the services, hours seemed to pass like minutes for Nick. "To me, that was absolutely miraculous!" he recounts.
What's more, the prayers and scripture passages of those services were coming to life for him. As he let the words sink into his heart, he could hear God in them. He was beginning to discover what it means to commune with Christ. No longer were church services dry rituals for Nick. Now they were precious, divinely ordered opportunities to enter the loving fellowship of the Holy Trinity.
But at the very center of Nick's Lenten transformation was a new and vital experience of the holy sacraments. Especially in the Eucharist, and in the Sacrament of Repentance (Confession), Nick encountered Christ as he never had before.
For instance, he had been to Confession many times in his life. Every time he went, Nick says, "I felt true regret. Every time, I longed to change." Yet while his remorse was real, change did not come. His repentance could send him back to his old selfish and sinful life, with a vow to live it less sinfully. But it could not empower him to fulfill that vow.
This Lent, however, things were different. Nick was catching a glimpse of the transcendent life that God holds out to all of us. Now, he saw that to be a Christian is not just to live life differently. To be a Christian is to live a different life-the alternative one that God holds forth to us as a whole and complete gift. Nick was ready to receive that brand new existence.
"The first time I confessed my sins to my priest that Lent," Nick recalls, "I heard a door inside me close. Really. I heard it shut. In that moment I knew my world had changed. I knew I could not go back to what I was."
And just as Confession was closing the door to Nick's old life, the Eucharist was opening the door to his new one. He grasped the simple truth about Communion: "Now I was going to the chalice every time it was offered, because I understood that I was taking Christ-the real, living Jesus-into me. And I could feel Him there in my heart, an undeniable presence, growing deeper and warmer within me."
So tangible was Christ's holy presence within that Nick would find himself putting his hand over his heart, trying to touch it. He also felt the need to protect that presence. "I used to enjoy violence and sexuality on TV," Nick admits. "Now, I was avoiding it. Even if I accidentally saw something like that, I'd instantly, automatically, put my hand over my heart, trying to shield the presence of Christ within me."
As Nick changed, others noticed. His wife told him, "You're a much nicer person these days." His children said the same thing. So did his business associates.
The Journey Continues
All this happened one year ago. But the Jesus who took hold of his heart during that beautiful Lent continues to bless, encourage, and use Nick Damascus. Love for his Master grows deeper every day. Nick still attends every service he can, and finds the living God waiting for him there every time.
Nick has also become a diligent man of prayer, who sees God at work in the lives of those for whom he intercedes. "Every time I go to church," Nick says, "I light two candles. One is for all those who need the same illumination that I received a year ago. The second is for the reposed. Those awaiting judgment need our prayers, too."
Evangelism is Nick's other holy passion. He finds opportunity in nearly every conversation to share something about his newfound life with God. But his big evangelistic project is getting books that teach "the basics of Orthodoxy" into as many hands as he can. Currently, he has three favorites: The Faith, by Clark Carlton, Becoming Orthodox, by Father Peter Gillquist, and my own Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells. He gives these books to people, gets them put on the shelves of local bookstores, and has succeeded in convincing his parish to sell them below cost-even give them away-at its yearly Greek festival.
Nick is adamant about this: "Every parish that has a festival, and every church that doesn't have a festival, should be getting books like these into the hands of as many people as possible. It took me more than fifty years to discover that the Orthodox Church is the true path to Christ. These books explain that beautifully. People outside the Church, and inside the Church, need to know that if they really want to experience the love of God, they need to be here."
Reflections on an Orthodox Conversion
For me, getting to know Nick Damascus has been a great blessing. He is a living example of everything I endeavor to teach people, as a writer and speaker, about the heart of this Orthodox faith. Let me offer one particular observation.
We see in Nick's story the beautiful difference between an Eastern Orthodox "conversion experience" and the one familiar to most Christians in the West. For Westerners, conversion is driven by the need to escape the wrath of God, Whose very nature requires that He punish us for sinning against Him. Fortunately for humankind, He provides His own Son as the sacrificial payment that satisfies His demands. Conversion, then, is a matter of realizing the dilemma and receiving Jesus as one's personal Savior, thereby being "saved."
The converted one loves God for providing a way of salvation. What he probably doesn't think about (if he does, he will likely one day find himself Orthodox!) is that his God is one Whose love must be purchased before it can be given. In other words, his God's love is entirely conditional.
Nick's conversion was much different for the simple fact that God is not that kind of God. Yes, just like Western Christians, we Orthodox know that our sin separates us from God, and thereby condemns us to death. Like them, we understand that without God's intervention, that death would be eternal.
But in contrast to the West, Orthodoxy knows God to be Unconditional Love personified. The God Who liberated Nick Damascus feels no need or desire to punish anyone. He is not a God Whose love must be bought; nor is He so angry with us that He must kill Himself to assuage His displeasure. No, Nick was given new life by a God Who became Incarnate for the sole purpose of rescuing us from our self-chosen death, so that he might graft us into the life of the holy Trinity.
Nick's conversion began with an admission of his hopeless sinfulness. In broken humility, he turned to God for deliverance from that death. From Him, Nick obtained more than just ready forgiveness of his sins. Through the medicine of sacrament and liturgy, he received the grace that truly cures sin, that rids us of its bonds, and frees us to live Christ's life.
In the end, telling or reading Nick Damascus' story is pointless unless we are willing to embrace it as our own story. Great Lent is our spiritual proving ground. Will we flee to the holy services and meet God? Or will we choose to stay away, denying God the opportunity to heal and transform us? Will we embrace the sacraments as our portal to another life-the holy life of the Trinity? Or will we neglect them, and content ourselves with the sorry emptiness of our own self-created worlds of death?
At the end of the Fast, bright Pascha awaits. May God help us during this holy season of repentance, so that we may come to the empty tomb converted and transformed, ready and waiting with joyous longing to be wholly joined to the resurrected Christ.