ROMAN CATHOLICS MET ORTHODOXY
James Evans, England:
His conversion from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy
“RUSSIA IS A SACRED COUNTRY FOR ME”
Interview with James Evans, an Orthodox Briton
Priest George Maximov, James Evans
We continue to publish the materials of Spas TV program “My Path To God”, where Priest George Maximov interviews people who converted to Orthodoxy. The guest of today’s program is James Evans, an Orthodox Englishman. He will tell us why he prefers to live in Russia rather than in England, what he gets from singing in the Orthodox church and how his journey to Orthodoxy began.
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Priest George Maximov: Hello. You’re watching My Path To God. Today we have a guest from England. James, please tell us about yourself.
James Evans: I was born in a Catholic family in London. Later we moved to Salisbury, 3 hours away from London. I went to an Anglican school, because education there was better than in Catholic schools. The Anglican service doesn’t differ much from the Catholic service. It was quite beautiful and I sang in the school choir during the services. However, I went to a Catholic church for communion.
All my grandparents are from Scotland, Ireland and Wales, and so I am of a Celtic origin.
I grew up in Salisbury and went to Oxford after graduation. When I was still in school in Salisbury, I passed the Latin exam one year earlier and was offered to select an additional subject. I chose Informatics, but they assigned me to a Russian language course instead. I was upset, but started reluctantly studying it. A few months later, I was told that this year they were organizing a student exchange program and I had a chance of going to Russia. I travelled to Russia for my summer vacation in 1989, when I was 16. This changed everything for me and set the course for my future life. When I got back to England, I understood that I couldn’t live without Russia. I talked the principal into giving me an opportunity to study Russian language and literature individually. He made an exception and assigned personal tutors to me. In the University of Oxford, I continued my Russian studies. Not because I wanted to become a linguist, but because I felt that Russia was calling me. I don’t know why, but I had a feeling that there would be no life for me without Russia. That was how it all started.
Father George: So, thanks to the Russian language studies, you learned about the Russian culture. You also visited Russia when it was still a part of the Soviet Union and saw its everyday life and people. Were you particularly impressed by anything?
I wasn’t impressed by the Russian culture as much as I was impressed by a totally different view on life.
James Evans: My first encounter with the Russian culture started with Lermontov. After studying Russian for about a year and knowing no more than a hundred words, I started reading his Hero of Our Times. What impressed me when I visited Russia? I wasn’t impressed by the culture, the museums and art, etc. as much as I was impressed by a totally different view on life.
As part of that student exchange program, a group from the Soviet Union came to Great Brittan. My school has a five-century long history. It was founded by King Edward VI, the son of Henry VIII. A group of kids from Soviet Union came and broke all the rules. We drank Sovetskoye champagne in my room. One of the guests was a very good guitarist and he played a mix of Russian songs and the Beatles’ songs. I think they even smoked. It was shocking. After that, the boys in my school looked at me differently. They knew that it was something beyond their understanding.
For me, being in Russia is like breathing different air. The relationships between people here are different. I don’t know why, but I didn’t quite get along with kids in England. However, for some reason I felt that I belonged with these Russian kids. It was so easy. The communication was totally different and pleasant. It is difficult to explain. It was a different feeling, a different way of life. Something changed in me after my first visit to Russia. However, at that time I had no interest in Orthodoxy.
Father George: How did you learn about Orthodoxy?
James Evans: I participated in a second student exchange program. My friend Phillip was in that program too. Eventually, with the blessing of bishop Anthony of Sourozh, Philipp became Father Phillip. Once Philip and I went to an Orthodox church in London. We didn’t even know that bishop Anthony was there. He was walking in the church so quietly and then came up and talked to us. In about a minute, Phillip realized who was talking to him and he couldn’t believe it. I didn’t quite understand who was talking to us. When I came to Russia, Phillip, who was already a reader in the church, always invited me to the services. I stood there with a straight back, as I felt awkward and didn’t want to bow. People in Russia probably won’t understand it, but in England and generally in the West people are very afraid to show that they are religious. They don’t want to make the sign of the cross not because they don’t worship the cross, but because they don’t want to draw attention to their inner feelings. They are too shy to show them. As I came from such a background, I felt awkward in an Orthodox church, but since Phillip kept on inviting me, I didn’t refuse. I would come and stand there for about 2 hours; my back would be stiff and sore. The service was very impressive and beautiful, but it was tough for me because standing like that was difficult and I had a feeling that this was not my world, and many things seemed strange. Still, this was my first step.
Once a priest invited me into the altar. It was a great honor. I stood there in awe with eyes wide open, feeling that it was very important. The priest probably foresaw that in the future I would convert to Orthodoxy and maybe that was why he invited me. It was unforgettable.
Father George: How did you convert to Orthodoxy? Were you moved by your heart or by your reason? What played the major role?
My spiritual journey is associated with singing.
James Evans: My spiritual journey is associated with singing. As I mentioned, I used to sing when I was child, but I stopped singing when I grew up. I still don’t sing much when I’m in England. I feel that there is no need for me to sing there. On the other hand, I started singing here in Russia, I don’t know why. As if here I am a totally different person.
Olya, the wife of my friend from the first student exchange program, was teaching me singing in the opera school. There were some guests at the exam and among them was Vasily Petrovich, the choirmaster of the church I now go to. At the end of the exam, he came up to me and invited me to sing in his St. Trinity Church in Lysty district. I remember that it felt as if my heart were softly smiling. Very softly, but it was a definite smile. As if my heart was telling me to say, “Yes”. I don’t remember what exactly I answered to the choirmaster; probably I said that I would come. However, I knew for sure that I’d come to the service. So next Sunday I went there and started singing. It happened some time in early Great Lent, 12 years ago. People in the choir gallery knew that I was a Catholic, but let me sing anyway. I didn’t think about anything specific then, I simply knew that singing during the service was beautiful. I don’t remember how exactly it happened, but by the end of Great Lent, Vasily Petrovich and I were already discussing my conversion to Orthodoxy. Father Ambrose anointed me with chrism on Great Saturday and on Easter Day I was already an Orthodox Christian. This was just the beginning, of course. Some people come to religion through reason, but for me it happened through singing. I can’t explain why, but singing was important for me.
I remember thinking, “Singing here is great, but it is only twice a week, three times a week maximum.” It was not enough for me, so on other days I went to another church where they had early services. A few months later, a new priest was assigned to our church and he decided to have services every day. I smiled inside again, as if I knew that this would happen. So as soon as they started having services every day, I started singing at the church every morning. This was how my day started: I would get up with difficulty, but if it wasn’t for singing I wouldn’t get up at all. Singing was what made me get up and go to the service. So, my spiritual development was closely related to my singing every day at the church. Gradually, I started immersing myself in the atmosphere of divine services.
People are hustling and bustling around, while in the church everything is serene and we are singing. That was how the services were performed throughout Russia for hundreds of years. And I am a part of it.
I think that this is the important difference between Protestants and Orthodox. Protestants are completely committed to reason. They seem to study a lot and they can tell you many interesting things. While in Orthodoxy, I can simply go to a service, partake in the sacrament and be totally immersed it in. It is immersing into warm water. It is something that I do not fully understand, but although I don’t understand what is happening here, I participate in it in my own small way. And I know that it counts, and I can say why it is so meaningful. I’m singing in the church, and even though I am no one important and not much of a singer, I am a part of this worship service in downtown Moscow. People are hustling and bustling around, hurrying to work, cars rushing by, while we sing here quietly and peacefully. That was how the services were performed throughout Russia for hundreds of years. And I am a part of it. It is beautiful and this is what I need, because without it, I would be stuck in all that hustle and bustle.
Father George: When I spoke with converts from various Western countries, some of them mentioned a special phase of their journey. Initially, they felt that by becoming Orthodox they were accepting a beautiful tradition where many things seemed somewhat strange and unusual to them. Secondly, many of them noted that later they realized that it wasn’t something completely strange to them, that it was the same faith that their ancestors professed a long time ago when we were members of the same Church before Rome’s rejection of Orthodoxy. They realized that the ancient saints from their home countries and the ancient history of their people are actually a part of the history of the Orthodox church. Did you feel something like that? Or do you primarily associate Orthodoxy with the Russian world?
In Catholic churches, everybody is sitting when the service starts, then you have to stand up for a while, then you have to sit down again and later you have to stand up and sit down again…
James Evans: In my case it was the other way around. I felt alienated from the things I knew from my childhood in England, because there were significant changes in the Catholic worship services. You probably know about it better that I do—it happened around 1960s, when the worship service was changed from Latin to English. On one hand, it was the right decision as it probably helped many people by making the services more accessible. On the other hand, the services became shorter and stripped down. There are benches in the churches, everybody is sitting at first, then you have to stand up for a while, then you have to sit down again and later you have to stand up and sit down again. Then you have to kneel. All this happens during a short service that lasts for about 40 minutes… If you want to talk to God quietly, this makes it is difficult, because all these movements are distracting. It could even be annoying. I wasn’t really annoyed, but inside I probably was already prepared for a more tranquil and profound service, the way it is done in Orthodox churches here in Russia.
For me, living in Russia is already a first step to salvation.
Since I came to Orthodoxy through Russia, the first phase for me was getting to know Russia. I felt that something physically changed inside of me. This was my initial phase only. The second phase started when Vasily Petrovich invited me to go further. That was when I got that inner smile in response to his words, that “Wow” feeling, knowing that I am about to enter the inner circle of Russia. For me, Orthodoxy is connected to Russia. Maybe somebody might find this wrong, but for me Russia is a sacred country. I have a feeling that living in Russia is already my first step to salvation. I can’t speak for other people, but this is what it is for me. That was why when I converted to Orthodoxy, I didn’t feel like a stranger, I already felt that Russia was like a mother to me. This doesn’t mean that I like everything I see in Russia, but… It is as if she is telling me, “Ok, James, come to me.” So when I started attending services, it felt natural to me. Later, when I started working in the children’s camp in Optina Monastery (I sing there in the choir), it was as if I made another step inside, got to the next level. Just like a nesting doll, you get more with every step.
Father George: How did your relatives take your moving to Russia and becoming Orthodox?
James Evans: It is difficult for parents when their child moves to another country, but my parents are open-minded. They understand that if I’m doing anything, I’m not doing it thoughtlessly.
And another thing—here’s what Catholics don’t really understand. They believe that the Orthodox are like brothers to them, while all Protestants are heretics. Catholics are more accepting of Orthodoxy, than Orthodoxy is accepting of Catholics. I’m talking about regular people. I am not saying that they understand the situation correctly, but this is what they think. The priests’ opinions are a whole other matter.
So, in this respect, my mother is fine with it. Moreover, she knows that I’m singing. Of course, she feels better knowing that her son is closer to God. This was what she always wanted. Somehow, it didn’t happen in England, but it happened when I converted to Orthodoxy. This feeling of being closer to God is getting stronger when I live here in Russia and sing in the church.
Father George: Has your mother come to visit you in Russia? Has she attended the services you sang at?
James Evans: No, she visited me only once and it was before I converted to Orthodoxy. It seems that my parents didn’t feel comfortable in Russia. It is strange because I did. But Russia is not for everybody. Once I invited my mother to attend a Greek Orthodox service in England in a church that was close to her house. It was a small community, not too many people. However, she feels comfortable in her Catholic church and that is why she prefers to stay there. I think that she respects my decision. Perhaps, she has some minor negative feelings because I quit Catholicism, but we have never quarreled because of it.
Father George: James, a lot of people emigrated from Russia to the West, and to England in particular, especially in 1990s when there was an economic crisis. Many people were going there with wide-open eyes expecting to see some advanced civilization, especially developed culture. Some found what they were looking for, some were disappointed and some even returned home. But there was definitely a flow of people from Russia to the West. Since you were moving in the opposite direction, I’d like to ask you: What is the greatest difference in mentality between people in England and Russia?
You start to see things in different light and think, “Something feels wrong with the West”.
James Evans: I remember what happened in 1989 when that group of students from the Soviet Union came to visit us. They were looking in awe at the shelves full of audio equipment in a small suburban English town. When I came to Russia the same year, I saw empty shelves in the stores. That’s why I felt like coming I was from a world that seemed to have everything. We thought that we were doing everything right and that we had an advantage, not only in terms of economics but in terms of something bigger. It is difficult not to succumb to this fallacy, when you seem to be getting everything right. On top of that, in the 1990s corruption in Russia was rampant. Therefore, at first I felt that I come from a democratic country where we do everything right, while here they have corruption… Then I started seeing things in a different light and thinking, “Something feels wrong with the West. Something is a little bit off with England and the USA. Although something is off here in Russia too, but there is something extremely beautiful. It is very difficult to define what it is.”
I’ll tell you about my most vivid impression. I’ve been working at the children’s camp and singing in the choir in Optina Monastery. And there I could clearly see the difference: In England, the monasteries that in 1540s were shut down under some false pretences by Henry VIII who killed everyone, the abbots and priors of monasteries who didn’t want to bow down to him, are still deserted. In Russia, the process of spiritual revival began as soon as the epoch of Communism was over. I can’t say, if it is right or correct, but I see that the process is going on, I see the revival. I feel the spirit of medieval times, not in a bad sense, but in the sense of continued tradition. This is what is happening in Russia, in Optina Monastery. What’s happening in England? Well, they have some sites, some small communities and monasteries, but in general there is no spiritual revival in England. Napoleon used to call the English people “the nation of shopkeepers”. Something seems to be missing in England, and you really feel it. Why is it that England still cannot restore its inherent spiritual life? Not all people should live in a secular way. I’m not a monk and even though I lead a simple life, I live in a secular way, but it seems strange to me that nobody in England every restored those monasteries. England has not yet come to terms with its past, while Russia, despite many problems, managed to re-connect those torn threads. This means that we are doing something right in Russia.
Father George: You remind me of what happened when I first visited a Catholic country. I was invited to participate in a small conference in Austria where the Orthodox would present the Orthodox views while Catholics presented Catholic views. On the very first day, our hosts took us to a restaurant that was set up in a former monastery building. I was shocked. This was more than ten years ago, and at that time we too still had some churches and monasteries that had not been returned to the Church. We had just a few of those left and they were perceived as our pain, as sacred places that were desecrated, the sites we could not yet manage to return and restore. If I had some Catholic guests, I wouldn’t even think about taking them to a former church to eat. These former churches that stopped being churches, those former monasteries that are lifeless now, they are a symbol of demise, a symbol of the nation’s mistake. While for Catholics it was perfectly normal. This is one of the things that I have difficulty understanding in the Western way of thinking. Even though they didn’t have that painful experience we had here in Russia, when all the ties with the past were forcefully cut off, people in the West have lost their past on their own volition and don’t even worry about it.
In Oxford where I studied, a church was turned into a bar. England has lost its ties with holiness.
James Evans: That’s right, in Oxford where I studied, a church was turned into a bar. Some small village churches were turned into residential houses. England has lost its ties with holiness. Only Orthodoxy is maintaining these ties in England. It represents a small part of the spiritual life in England; I’m not sure, maybe 1% in terms of number of people. But they worship the English saints. There are thousands of saints. These sacred sites, places where the saints lived and sites of pilgrimage are most of all worshiped by the Orthodox. The others, both Protestants and Catholics, chose a different path. They chose a totally different world, a totally different world view. It is very difficult for them to understand how we live in Russia. When I’m in England, I have difficulty with that, because they are so sure that their materialistic reality is an objective reality and that is all there is. Well, they know that God exists, but that is basically it.
There is no past or future in Orthodoxy, during the worship service there is only present. And Jesus Christ Himself is standing next to us.
Russia never lost the understanding that during the worship service, all the saints and martyrs of Russia participate in the service with us. During the service, there is no past or future, there is only present. And Jesus Christ Himself is standing next to us. If you were to start rationalizing it, you’d be on the wrong path. You need to understand that it is a Sacrament. I think that in Russia this Sacrament is accepted quite naturally. I no longer understand how people can live the way they live in the West. I think they have some kind of illness. I hope it will be cured. Here, Russia probably helps. It maintains that connection with the past that the West has lost.
Father George: I hope to God that spiritual revival would begin in the West too. I believe that God has plans for all nations and I hope that people in the West would discover the treasury of Orthodoxy for themselves, because this treasure is not only for Russia, Greece or Serbia, it is available to anybody who is looking for the Truth.
was interviewed by Priest George Maximov
Translation by Talyb Samedov