By Father Daniel Rentel
“Why am I still here, in this Church,” is a good question. I’ve really had to think about it, to reflect, to tease out the elements that have supported belief, the temptations that challenged and discredited it. It’s been a good exercise. I’ve come to realize that I believe because, with God’s grace, I’ve determined that there’s no place else to go where I can be.
From the beginning something about the church appealed to me and answered my innate need to believe. I was born into an ethnic family in central Pennsylvania. My family roots could be found in the mountains of Central Europe, but the Church of Sts. Peter and Paul was liturgically bound to the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of North And South America, the Metropolia. We used Old Church Slavonic and heard Russian sermons, used Russian Tones, 4 part harmony – Bortniansky was in our repertoire – and there were Russian language classes. I would go to confession; the priest would recite a prayer (in Slavonic), I’d tell sins in English. It would end by his asking, “You sorry?” I’d say yes and he would then offer a departing prayer in Slavonic.
So it went, but in all honesty there was more. We fasted – Jesus would be crucified and die for us. Everybody knew that. Jesus rose from the dead! We knew that. We feasted. We ate blessed food for a week. every day at another Aunt or Uncle’s house.We celebrated two Christmases: the New Calendar Christmas exchange and food of the no fasting variety, the 7th of January being the ”˜religious one’. To me, the 7th meant no presents, but a day off of school and it was always supposed to snow.
There were the sounds of the Church that became part of my inheritance. The old ladies would come to Church early enough so that they could almost whistle their prayers kneeling way in the back, close to the potbelly stoves that heated the women’s side of the sanctuary. The intensity of their prayers made me think that they had to go somewhere to Someone, and these babas were bound together by the common Faith they shared.
Another important memory was of processions, which worked their way around the Church in such a way that one just knew that the sadness of the walk with the ”˜Plaschanitsa’ was different from the one where they pounded on the doorway so as to enter a Church filled with light, wondrous smells, open doors, and joy that moved itself from individual to community.
Eventually, English-speaking priests came. We opened a Sunday School that met on Wednesdays. I thrilled at the Old Testament stories that came first. I did. Not only were they heroes, but they somehow pointed to Jesus: Jonah in the belly of the whale usually comes first to mind when I think back. Or was it Abraham and Isaac, both so trusting, it actually bothered me for quite some time because I couldn’t see myself going to the limits as they did. Despite some obstacles in my early experiences, what was there was necessary but not sufficient. My senses had been stirred and my intellect challenged. I wanted more.
For complicated reasons that to this day I don’t fully understand, I decided in my early teens that I wanted to be a priest. Once the beckoning implanted itself, I never completely lost what became a calling. And, it happened, not without some struggle. My first year of seminary was a disappointment in my quest for knowledge and understanding, as classes were taught in the Russian language. However, I formed sound and close relationships with my fellow seminarians. Their identical desire to respond to a calling promoted discussion, self-teaching, and camaraderie. Several of us left early in the fall of our second year to attend another seminary where classes were rendered in English.. After spending a year and a half there, several of us went back to the Seminary we had left. We were met by a new administration, a course of studies in English, and a growing premonition that Orthodox life in this country was beginning to change.
I graduated and two years later was married. Soon thereafter I was ordained at the Cathedral in New York. All was in Church Slavonic. Despite my intention to enter the priesthood, when actually faced with the reality, I was in a state of panic, praying against all odds that at least some parts of the service would be in English. It was not to be. To my amazement the one who became my champion was the grand and fearsome Russian Protodeacon of the time. He found me cowering in a far corner of the altar, discovered I had no real knowledge of the Russian language, and took pity, speaking broken English and leading me through the proceedings. To this say, I bless him. That occasion was 49 plus years ago.
Our experiences of parish life were mixed, as is often the case. I served one parish whose warden threatened to kill our dog, another that could not see its way to provide a $25.00 raise despite a paltry salary, and a mission that we loved dearly that finally couldn’t afford to go on. We left there with heavy heart. The mission collapsed but the mission experience allowed me to see as never before the catholic nature of Orthodoxy. It dawned on me that Orthodoxy could more than survive in twentieth century America. That was a revelation.
But in the process of furthering my education, I reentered the world of ethnic congregations while I serviced some small parishes in mining towns. These small places somehow reignited my faith. Despite shrinking numbers, shrinking incomes, shrinking opportunities, these believers hung on. Their kindness to me was overwhelming. The back seat of my car on Sundays became shelving for fresh eggs, wild strawberry preserves, home made bread, and even kolachi. The people in these mountain towns were convicted in their faith and revealed in their generosity and brave gentility an element of the enduring qualities of faith.
A desire for more schooling forced a move to Columbus, Ohio. While here initially on a fellowship, I was put on loan to the Midwest Diocese as a supply priest. I was then directed by Central Church authorities to explore the possibility of establishing a mission in Cincinnati, Ohio, about 125 miles to the southwest. This ended up a seven year commute that allowed me to come into ownership of my Faith. My family and I became for a time spiritual nomads. My wife worked and went herself to graduate school. Finally, the stress and strain on the family front, and the demands of serving a mission two hours’ drive away, while continuing to pursue my own doctoral studies, all caught up with me. One Sunday, I pulled into a rest stop, crying. For two hours at an interstate rest stop, all came into question. In those crisis moments, words offered to me by my Father Confessor surfaced: “The Fathers tell us that we all go into spiritual deserts, arid and empty. Just go on. Whenever fitting, you’ll find yourself drinking new life in an oasis God will provide.” It didn’t happen instantaneously, but it did happen.
When I was 54 years of age, I suffered a massive heart attack, and my life hung in the balance for several days. Even on the border of life and death, the prayers from my youth sustained me, but with a whole new depth of meaning. Area clergy anointed me. I knew them only by their countenance: kindness, love, and spiritual brightness – they brought the Lord to me in a holy Mystery.
Now I have retired from what has been ultimately a most rewarding pastoral experience at St. Gregory’s in Columbus. The challenges of a parish in an urban setting necessitated the fulfilling of Gospel injunctions that I’d not faced before. I believe that I had become a true shepherd of “rational sheep”; the notion of hierarchy and conciliarity became for me a reality. What a gift that has been!
So why am I still a believer? Looking back, I can say without presumption but with total conviction that I believe that God has been with me all the days of my life. I recognize that at some level, one chooses to believe or not, but I now understand that the greater reality is the absurdity of faith. The notion of nonbelief I see has a trick of the Evil One, a trick that leads to despair and emptiness. Belief leads to life! Through belief, I belong to something greater than myself. Through belief, my life has purpose, structure and meaning””it is life itself. . Through faith, my senses and my intellect have been nourished abundantly. Through faith I have been called in the most personal way to overcome doubts along the way, and, God willing, in the future.