Conversation with Apollos Cassian

SV: When did the journey to the Orthodox church begin for you?

AC: I was doing youth ministry for three years at a local church, and I began to meet with a priest down the street at the Catholic church. And it was at that point that I was faced with a difficult decision because I spent several years of my life as a youth pastor and I was now thinking, “This isn’t the fullness of the truth.” So I met and talked with the priest a couple times, and I knew ultimately I had to step down as a youth pastor because the last thing I wanted was to have youth confused. I moved to Idaho, and it was there that I began to attend an Orthodox church.

SV: So, initially you met with a Catholic priest?

AC: Yes.

SV: So was there anything about Protestantism or Evangelicalism that made you want to talk to a Catholic priest?

AC: The pastor at the church I was serving at continually made reference to the early church fathers. At first I thought, “Okay, whatever” because I went to Northwest University, and the professors talked about the early church fathers. I didn’t think much of it. I don’t know why I didn’t think much of it. But at a certain point, for whatever reason I did think much of it. I thought, “Well wait, if the pastor is always mentioning these early church fathers and talking about the councils and how significant they are, why am I not Catholic?” Initially, I was sort of dumbfounded because I can’t believe I never thought along those lines because it was so straightforward. Celibacy was another issue. In the Protestant world, there’s no place for that really. You’re looked at as a weirdo or something’s wrong with you. So that’s what sort of began that journey.

SV: We studied philosophy at Northwest together. Did philosophy have an influence on your trajectory?

AC: I would say in a way it probably did. While I was doing youth ministry, I was also on youtube talking with primarily atheists. During those years, I saw several people who had gone on youtube as Christians who decided they were going to be online apologists, and not too much longer they abandoned Christianity. The more I saw this happening, I realized there was something very problematic with the way these evangelical Protestants approached arguments for the existence of God. When I learned more about the Orthodox faith, and its importance not so much on words spoken and certainly not on debating the existence of God but on experiencing the realities of God and how God is ultimately transcendent and mystical, that definitely played a role.

SV: When you first attended an Orthodox church, what were your impressions?

AC: It was overwhelming. It was one thing to see icons in pictures, but in an Orthodox church, they were everywhere-all over the walls, on the doors, and so on. It’s funny because one of the first questions I asked the priest and sub-deacon who was there was, “Where’s the cross?” And their response was sort of that oh yeah, there’s that typical evangelical Protestant question. I wanted to see Christ crucified, did they really believe in that? I knew they did, but I was used to that being more of a prominent thing. And it actually was an extremely prominent thing, more prominent than I ever experienced as a Protestant. The cross was actually behind the altar. Every year the church goes through the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection, and that’s why the cross was behind the altar because they had just finished celebrating the crucifixion.

SV: So how long after your attendance there did you decide to commit to the Orthodox faith?

AC: It was a good couple months or so. In the Orthodox faith, you become a catechumen, so basically you’re learning the teachings of the church and usually that’s supposed to be for about a year. So I did that for a year, and when it came time for me to get baptized I learned you have to give life-long confession. I had never given a confession before in my life, and I really struggled with that. I was like, “I don’t know if I can just tell someone like…everything!” And that almost was a deal breaker. I thought, “Could I really tell any human everything? Is that okay?” So after that I went to a bookstore that my friends told me about, and I’m in the religion section. And I found a book called Harlots in the Desert, and I’m literally crying in the back of the bookstore as I’m reading this book. This whole time I was really struggling about giving a life-long confession, and here’s this book about the life of St. Mary of Egypt, who was essentially a prostitute who found forgiveness and healing and became a saint in the church. At that moment, I knew then, it’s okay. These are the saints, and if someone like that can give her confession, well then of course I can give confession.

SV: Are there things about evangelicalism that you miss? How do you feel about evangelicalism, now?

AC: It’s a mixed bag. Initially, I was definitely cynical, but that quickly changed because I met other people who left evangelicalism and became orthodox, and when I would hear them talk about the reasons they were cynical I thought, “Okay, wait that’s not actually a very good reason.” For example, people would talk about in the Orthodox church how there’s a mystical experience, and in a sense absolutely, you can be very focused and it can be very prayerful and meditative. But do most people in the orthodox church on Sundays, is that the experience that they have? And what I found was, look you got broken people wherever they’re at. They’re definitely there in the Orthodox church, the struggles are different, but fundamentally they’re very similar. For example, problems like apathy or community for the sake of networking versus community for the sake of growing closer to Christ, and people placed an emphasis on put on your smiley face because it’s Sunday. The same problems are there at the Orthodox church that you would have at any church. That said, when I was doing youth ministry I was also involved in leading the worship team, and I absolutely loved the fact that we don’t have to find the latest coolest worship song to sing on any particular Sunday because they’re always the same. There’s no projection, there’s no PowerPoint. You’ve got a choir, and the choir is usually off to the side if not in the back of the congregation. They are not the focus. There is not the sort of emotional manipulation that I encountered frequently in the evangelical world. There’s definitely emotion, and the songs we sing are very emotional. There’s also less emphasis on the pastor or the priest. The sermons are maybe between 15 and 30 minutes, and the homily is such a small aspect of the entire liturgy. So the service is not about the priest. The Orthodox church is the most Baptist and Pentecostal church I’ve ever been to because every Sunday you’re reminded of the life, crucifixion, and resurrection of Christ, and you’re also continually reminded of the importance and role of the Spirit in empowering us to live lives of holiness.

SV: I feel like evangelicalism is structured in such a way that you could get all the great things of the Orthodox church like the aesthetics, the emphasis on community and the church fathers, honoring the traditions, and so on, and in principle you could do all that in an evangelical church without going all the way to the Eastern Orthodox faith. What do you think about that?

AC: If someone were to tell me they were trying to do that, I would say keep doing it because you would realize you can’t do it and you’d become Orthodox. When you read through the lives of the saints, you can’t avoid the richness of their lives and what they talk about it and the context in which all of that took place.

SV:  So the Protestant in me wants to say that while I can certainly honor the saints and appreciate them, and I’m all for recognizing their role and I think evangelicals who don’t regard the church fathers, I see as a bad thing, at the same time I’m committed to the idea of Christ alone. Christ’s work saves us. One of the biggest concerns for me is that Christ is the mediator between us and God. If Christ has fully done that work, to me it seems natural that I would go to Christ. Why would I talk to a saint?

AC: That’s a great question! That was one the major stumbling blocks for me. I quickly learned that the Orthodox church of course believes that eternal salvation is something only Christ can provide. But it’s like Hebrews 12-“We’re surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses. Since we are surrounded by this cloud of witnesses let us fix our eyes on Jesus.” But those witnesses are there; they’re present. I like the fact that when you walk in to the Orthodox church, you see all these icons of saints from all walks of life. Especially now as Christianity is being slowly eradicated to be able to have the saints and the icons and to be able to reflect on people who have lived the life that Christ calls me to has been very beneficial. As Christ said, “God is not the God of the dead, but the living.”

SV: Any advice or suggestions to evangelicals who are frustrated with evangelicalism?

AC: Well maybe to help with those evangelicals who are frustrated, because here’s what I’ve seen: it frustrates me seeing evangelicals become Orthodox because they’re frustrated with evangelicals.

SV: So you would say don’t join the Orthodox church just out of a cynicism?

AC: Absolutely. The ultimate reason I became Orthodox, similar to St. Apollos, he knew something, he had an element of the truth, but there was something more. There’s no denying in evangelicalism Christ is preached, for me it became apparent that the fullness of who Christ is was not there. If someone becomes Orthodox because they’re mesmerized by the tradition and the candles, and the mysticism of it all, and it feels so different, the problem is within two or three years those things do not feel very different anymore. I can tell you there is a good percentage of people that after they become Orthodox they then leave the faith. You’re going to find hypocrites in the Orthodox church who just go through the motions. I’ve gone to various Orthodox churches, and have felt isolated or welcome. But that is a struggle we face no matter where we go. So don’t join the Orthodox for something like that, because that’s really not an issue that’s just a human problem. The motivation should really about drawing closer to Christ and the fullness of who He is and where that can be found.

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