ROMAN CATHOLICS MET ORTHODOXY
ALASKA & AMERICA OF MY HEART
Joseph Magnus Frangipani, ALASKA, USA
After Baptism in the Eastern Orthodox Church
The Impossibility of Aloneness: When Christ Found Me in the Himalayas
by Joseph Magnus Frangipani
I’m an Orthodox Christian living in Homer, Alaska and experienced Jesus Christ in the Himalayas, in India.
I listen to the heartbeat of rain outside…
Cold, Alaskan fog blowing in off the bay, emerald hills now that autumn is here and summer chased away into the mountains. But a milky white fog spreads over the bay like a silken ghost. I used to visit Trappist monasteries, back when I was Catholic, at the beginning of high school, and searching for a relationship of love. I read plenty of philosophy then to know that knowing isn’t enough, that having a realization in the mind is entirely different from experiencing a revelation of the heart.
I spent two birthdays in the Himalayas…
Traveling along gravel roads that drop deep into icy gulches where the Ganges river rages below not yet packed with the filth and mud and newspapers of villages, not yet carrying remainders of Indians in her current, I found Christ found me. It’s a difficult and strangely compelling atmosphere to confront oneself, – – India, – – sandwiched with black corpses, white snow, pagan fires and virulent animals.
I took a bus north from Delhi. It was crowded, tight and cramped, flies buzzed between my face and the windows smeared with brown slime. It’s so polluted in Delhi, so much coffee-colored smoke, so much steam that you really can’t see the sun. You saw it, a rising orange-reddish ball burning over the horizon fifteen minutes in the morning, but then fifteen minutes slouching back down again, an exhausted head over the mountains.
I grew up Catholic but turned to Buddhism when introduced to a self-hypnosis class at my Catholic high school, experimenting with meditation and ‘mindfulness.’ I experienced serious symptoms of manic depression then, partially because I’d consciously turned away from the Judeo-Christian God, and also because life at home was very, very difficult for me. I grew anxious and got into extremely self-destructive habits, and so Buddhism seemed a perfect door to address – or not address – my turning from God and family, and focusing my energy toward dissolving into a Void, a dissolving bubble on an endless and personless river, Tathāgatagarbha. The element that got me is to dissolve my desire, and abandon my selfhood, in order to avoid suffering. But desire doesn’t seem so bad, especially when it is for love, which requires more than one person, and thereby voids any notion of abandoning self, – – and to love, to truly love, is to give, which may require sacrifice, and suffering – –
So Tibetan Buddhism kept coming up, because the meditation helped calm my anxieties and depression, and because the culture proved highly engaging, what with all her colorful flags, her skulls, and metaphysical explanations of things, – – but what is left, when ‘I’ disappear, and there is no one else for whom a relationship of the heart can exist? Not to mention, what did the experiences of the Gospels, the Cloud of Witnesses, the Holy Church, amount to? I knew nothing of Orthodoxy when I reached into the closet of Buddhism, but in light of it, now, what does it all add up to?
Mindfulness worked as far as cleansing the window, the mind, is concerned, which is important, but then many of its doctrines, – and I explored countless doctrines, – really stop here. Clear sky. But what it did not do, and could not, really, is orient me toward the sun, and the warmth of the sun, and the sunlight – – all religions seem to contain some seed of truth, but fail in witnessing to the Triadic God…and all my destructive habits, and relationships, and every mantra, and yoga, all of which I’ve had my fill…this is how Christ brought me to Him.
Back to the story, I’m in Delhi, on a bus. And after an hour or two of sitting in that cramped, stuffy and urine-soured air you hear the front breaks release, the bus finally stretching her arthritic joints and creak slowly forward. She rolls, head first, toward the busy main road. For fifteen minutes we cough and pop down the road, away from my filthy, but greatly lovable refuge of Manju Ka Tilla, a sort of Tibetan refugee camp criss-crossed with telephone wire, wet and narrow alleyways packed with dogs and diapered babies, and polio. Cobblestone streets and bakeries, copper trinkets and arms, this is the first place on earth I met leprosy, and her sister polio. The beginning of my spiritual warfare.
I usually saw them together, these two, – polio and leprosy – crowding in around a barrel of fiery rags, in the crayon-black darkness hands like chewed-up bread, teeth pencil yellow and cracked. I see a boy attacked by a skinny, vicious-looking dog with long, wet fur and crazy eyes – it looks like a red and yellow fox, – – a tangle of fur and blood and whimper. The taxi cab drivers, waiting on their afternoon customers near the stinking, feathered dumpsters launch after the monster in a terrible raid of madness and darkness. They chase the thing down with bricks loosened from neighboring grocery store steps leaving the boy warm and wet with his own blood, a hound’s tooth broken off inside his leg.
Here is suffering, and personhood, and sacrifice…
He looks young but his face shows no signs of innocence. His dark eyes follow me as I run a few feet away to pick up a bottle of water, then return. We look at each other. His long, dangling arms and fingers started rubbing the area of skin that have broken open and gush a strange, purple fluid.
Wet, mossy feet and the bitter odor of trash hang in the air. Cows streaked with vomit pick through spoiled food and milk cartons nearby at the dumpsters. He waits for a doctor but one never arrives. I don’t know what else to do. The boy looks through me, limping into an alley and disappearing in the terrible darkness.
I will live here a total of five and a half months. I will have arrived here practicing Buddhism and Hinduism for eleven years, and leave Christian…
I thought maybe I’d join a Buddhist monastery, or be discovered by wise sage in the mountains, spend the rest of my life in the Himalayas experiencing exotic mystery and enlightenment. I read dozens of sutras by various Buddhas, had an underlined and well-worn copy of the Bhagavad-Gita and Upanishads, and was reading all the California guys, Bhagavan Das, Ram Das, Krishna Das, and even met most of them, all the 60s ‘hippy’ idols who dropped acid and flew to India to go ‘find the guru.’ I read Be Here Now and did the whole drug scene, but despite all the colorful statues and marijuana and tantra, no matter how ‘empty’ I became, there wasn’t enough and I sensed…how can I say this…something was wrong.
I worked as a wilderness guide for at-risk youth in the sage deserts of Idaho. Teaching primitive skills, meditation and mantra, and working with psychologists to develop methods of emotional and behavioral therapy – – I was chased by a wolf, I killed a rattlesnake. And while out there, – this is in the middle of my life before Christ, – – toward the end of it, actually, – – I began experiencing strange things – not only while traveling through India, but before that, and not only me, but my girlfriend. We saw, and everyone involved with this recipe of mantra, meditation, yoga, – and a lot of it sober, – – we saw shadows and demons, experienced trembling and ungodly anxiety and fear. So I knew something was strange, something was going on. It is not all opinion, all belief, for if I have freewill, and exist outside the body, – and I had plenty experiences where I knew I was more than my body, – – and this is one of the things that helped me dismiss and eventually leave the bag of eastern religions, – in addition to God’s grace, – – that if I am more than my body, and I have free will, and can choose to either accept or reject love, then others can too, and this brought up the issue of good versus evil, of right and wrong.
Was what I was doing, right? Who was I following? Are these things, these deities, just archetypes, and if not, if they are ‘real,’ are they ‘good?’ It like jumping into an ocean and realizing there are many different things floating around in there, harmless creatures, some of them beautiful, and some, in fact, that will attack you, that are poisonous, and the astral life, the spiritual life, is like that. Very quickly, once I got to India, I understood this. And was scared.
The boy with the watermelon disease, his head swollen on a piece of cloth outside my guest room door, a cloud of black flies wriggling over an empty ribcage and hollow eyes, a human Jack-O-lantern, his mother’s long brown arm rung with silver jewelry begging for rupees.
So why did I leave a supportive and beautiful girlfriend behind in Oregon to experience this? I was beginning to mend my relationship with my parents, gain more confidence, and had read Way of the Pilgrim a number of months before, but it was with all my California stuff, and I never saw any relation to that and Orthodoxy, never once asked, where is a church that deepens one’s relationship with the living, loving, Truth? Where truth is a Person, as I’d later read from Father Seraphim Rose?
I’d head up to the mouth of the Ganges River, to Gangotri, – – into a mountain. On my 28th birthday, I listened to the heartbeat of the wind on the cliffs, on the water, and experience not a realization of the mind, though that did happen, sure enough, but only once the heart was struck by a sort of cherubim’s sword in my heart, experiencing a revelation occurring in meeting the living God, Jesus Christ, and myself peeling away from itself.
What can I say?
Everything I’d learned, practiced, experienced for all of eleven years poured out from my head, in one ear and out the other, replaced by their approximate Christian terms, fulfilled, actually, and I knew reincarnation is impossible through the resurrection, because I am a self, a soul, and I knew karma is impossible because it operates independently of ‘God’ and there is Divine Intervention, I’ve witnessed it, and experienced it. In the cave, a joyous ache in my heart, and in the cave, no more aloneness, no more aloofness. In the Himalayas, and I mean immediately, like I was zapped, I really met Christ, and was dumb for a moment, and in Eternity I saw in my heart the Person of God as Christ, and I could never, ever be alone. Maybe I’d FEEL alone, sure, (doubtful) but I ought to remember, the impossibility of aloneness. Maybe that should be the title of this letter.
So what happened after? I picked up a Bible and read the thing in a guest house back in Dharamsala, over 12 hours away, and then I’d return to America, after the shaking bus trips and gargantuan ceremonies of burning bodies and yellow and black gods and goddesses, and and I’d fall into the lap of the Orthodox Church, in Eugene, and, I’m only skimming over it now, due to time constraints, and I’d visit St Anthony’s Monastery, in Arizona, and all the monasteries and churches in between, long enough to fill a book, and pray to St Herman who could, by his intercessions, bring me straight to Spruce Island, and to where, kneeling before his relics, find home. In Homer. There is more, but I’ll write later. So much has happened to my heart. Forgive me for rambling, and going on. May the Father of Lights enlighten us, and have mercy on us. Amen.
“It is one thing to believe in God, and another to know Him.” +St Siliouan
Editors Note: Joseph Magnus now lives in Port Townsend, Washington. He is a writer of children’s books and helps the Father Lazarus Moore Foundation.
ANCIENT FAITH TODAY
Fr. Ephraim of Arizona
Photos from St Anthony’s Greek Orthodox Monastery, Arizona, USA
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Facebook about Father Ephraim Philotheitis, Arizona, USA
St Anthony’s Monastery in Arizona
The Monasteries of Fr. Ephraim in America