From Sister Matthaia Osswald
This story tells how a Roman Catholic nun discovered the fullness of the Truth in the Orthodox Church...
Childhood and adolescence.
I was born in 1961 from Protestant parents, in a town in South Germany. We lived in a suburb which had earlier been a separate village and later was integrated into a municipality. There was only one Roman Catholic family, the rest of the inhabitants being Protestants. The daughter of this family, whom I used to like very much, was in my class at the elementary school. I still remember very well that I was strictly forbidden to visit her, because they told me that it would be embarrassing for our family if anybody learned about such a thing. During the following years there was a growing tolerance on this topic. Even though the majority of the inhabitants were Protestants, with the passage of time the "Catholic" population increased and more Roman Catholic communities were created in the town.
My parents did believe in God but they would not practice their faith, for example they would never go to church on Sundays, we would not pray, at least not together or before the meals and the topic of "God" was not discussed in our home.
However, in my grand parents' house lived an elderly Evangelical deaconess, who earlier had been a kindergarten teacher. She was like a light for me. Every time I would visit my grand parents I would use the occasion to "disappear" and visit this nun. She would always talk about Jesus; about His miracles; how repeatedly and in different ways He had helped her; about paradise, heaven and the angels. And she would pray with me. Time with her seemed to flow very fast! I was always sad, every time I would hear a voice telling me: "Where are you again? Come quick"! My grand parents did not take kindly to the fact that I would be so long with the "pious aunt".
One evening when I was four or five years old, I was lying in my bed thinking how terribly tiring it must be for Father God that He cannot take time off to relax. He must always stay up worrying about the people and be careful that nothing bad happens to them. I made all kinds of suggestions to Him such as for example, if He could alternate with His Son, or with the angels. Finally, I told Him, that I wished so much to help Him and that it would not bother me at all, if every now and then I stayed up all night, but neither would this help the people. On one hand these were very childish, all these thoughts of mine, but on the other hand I meant them and me never forgot, even though in the following years they faded entirely into the background. Afterward my schooling started. I became busy with other things.
Of course I never doubted the existence of God, but His existence had no importance for me and my life. It was as if they were two separate things that had no relationship with each other. All my adolescence was influenced by the fact that I always wished to be like the others (Something that I never succeeded in as I was always marginalized, which possibly was due to my exterior unpleasant appearance.) I tried everything the others did, smoke, go in the evenings to the bars, smoke marijuana, listen to rock music etc. I was then part of a group but it goes without saying, that most of the time I would be sitting alone in a corner and I never fit in even though I tried so much.
Enraptured by divine love
When I was seventeen a significant change happened in my life. I always had a great love for music. I played certain musical instruments and later I wished to study music.
Someone gave my mother two concert tickets. They were for the "St. Matthew Passion" of Johann Seb. Bach, which is about the Passion of Christ according to the gospel of St. Matthew in the Bible. The concert was scheduled for Holy Friday.
The Protestants do not have any particular divine liturgy for the Holy Week, that is why the so called "religious concerts" take place, so somebody could visit them for contemplation and interior peace. The concert lasted three and a half hours. Basically I cannot explain what happened inside me. The Holy Gospel in combination with the gripping music touched me deeply and moved my heart. (I read about something similar, incidentally, in the biography of Father Seraphim Rose). I was touched, impressed and overwhelmed by the love of Jesus Christ who died sacrificing himself on the Cross for us and for our sins. This love became at that moment a reality for me and filled me totally. I do not know how long I stayed at the church crying. I knew one thing however; I wanted to become an answer to this love. It was very clear in my heart. Later I would ask myself why I said "I want to become an answer to this love" and not "I want to give an answer to this love". I did not understand it but it appeared to have some significance. From that day on my life changed. The following day I bought a Bible. I hung a cross in my room and instead of going in the evenings to the pubs I would read the Holy Bible and pray. Later I decided to study ecclesiastical music. I was thinking that since God touched me in such a way and granted me a talent, then I want to help other people to be able to acquire a similar experience. I became a member of the church choir of our city and began following a course of ecclesiastical music and taking lessons on the church organ. This way my friends changed also. The following three years I dedicated myself totally to church music, to new acquaintances, to the Holy Bible and besides these, also to school.
Protestantism or the Roman Catholic "Church"
A girlfriend of mine temporarily played the church organ at a "Catholic" church community in our city. One Saturday evening, we agreed that I should wait for her outside the church so that we might go out together. By mistake I arrived an hour early, so I decided to go with her on the balcony and follow the Liturgy "from on high" instead of waiting outside the church. Somehow it was different from the Liturgy I knew at the Evangelical Church. It was somehow more transcendent and it impressed me. Since then I could not rest and wished to discover what the different thing that moved me was. For a long period I visited the Holy Mass of the Catholics at the Roman Catholic Church on Saturday evenings and on Sunday mornings, the Liturgy of the Evangelical "Church". The former began to attract me even more. At the Evangelical "Church" I missed the transcendence; it appeared to me to be a matter of a human format that brings together people with a common interest, namely God. At the Roman Catholic "Church" I felt something like transcendence. Something higher seemed to unite the people, different than what happens in a club or in a community of merely common human interests. I particularly enjoyed the Holy Eucharist as opposed to the holy communion of the Evangelical Church which never had any particular significance for me. I would often speak with the priest of the community who held contemporary views. As a Protestant I naturally had serious concerns with Papist! But for the priest this seemed to be no problem. Or better said, it was a problem, but he had resolved it in his way, namely in the way he had learned from the lectures of a university professor (in later years this professor's teaching license in Rome was revoked). The priest would say: "The Pope is in Rome and we are here. What does he know about us? Let him concern himself with the Church of Rome and us here with ours". (This view was naturally everything but Roman Catholic and it began to spread ever more during the 80's decade). The thing that finally pushed me to become Roman Catholic was the experience of this transcendence and above all the Eucharist, namely, the belief that during the Divine Liturgy the bread and wine truly transformed into the body and blood of Christ; that is; that all this was a reality and not only symbolic. Another reason was the liturgy itself, because in the Evangelical "Church" there was no liturgy with this meaning. The Liturgy consisted only in the reading of the Holy Bible, a long preaching and lots of songs and about once a month the so-called "divine communion" right after the liturgy. In October 1982 I became a Roman Catholic.
Contemplating today on the way all this happened, I can only shake my head for I was blind. We had decided to celebrate with a "liturgy" at the house (Hausmesse) in a family atmosphere. The celebration did not take place at the church but in the living room of the priest's house. The reading from the Gospel I could select myself and instead of a sermon we would together exchange our thoughts corresponding to the areas of the Bible we had chosen while we were sitting on the sofa. This was called liturgy of the word. For the celebration of the Eucharist we would all sit together around the dining room table which also served as a Holy Altar. Although I had to recite together with the rest the creed of faith, no one asked me to confess the following: I believe and confess whatever the Holy, Catholic Church believes, teaches and declares". (This I realized only 24 years later, when someone told me: "You cannot abandon our Church just like that, since you made this confession").
This was the way I became a Roman Catholic. So now what? The Church music played a significant role in the Evangelical church, but in the Roman Catholic Church it was secondary. Moreover, the church music here did not appear very attractive to me. It was created through quick processes following the Second Vatican Council, when the liturgy was changed by allowing it to be performed from then on in the language of each country, and so it had no tradition. Apart from this I was thinking that I should somehow become involved in some community and since as a woman I could not become a priest, I decided to study theology, and become a pastoral assistant. I continued studying the Holy Bible and above everything else I was touched deeply by the spoken parables. It always touched me when Jesus would say to the rich young man:
"Go sell your belongings and come and follow Me" (Matt 19:21). To someone else He said: "Follow Me and let the dead bury their own dead" (Matt 8:22) or "no man having put his hand to the plough, and looking back is fit for the Kingdom of God" (Luke 9:62). It would touch and hurt me. I wanted to make my faith a profession and the most basic thing in my life. But how? Should I leave from my house without a penny? without a second overcoat? without anything? Just simply leave, just as the Bible says? But then where?
In search of my own monastery
Before the start of my basic studies I had to first follow for one year pre-seminary studies to learn Biblical Latin and Greek. During this period a pivotal event happened to me. One day in a doctor's waiting room as I was leafing through a journal, I landed on an article about a Benedictine monastery. That interested me! Perhaps that was the answer to my doubts about my existence. I had believed that monasteries existed only during the middle ages. As I already said, I lived in an Evangelical area where there were no monasteries. The following day I phoned to enquire if it would be possible for me to visit them. Their answer was positive and for weeks I was happy in expectation of the coming holidays that I would spend there. I was deeply impressed by the silence, the services of the hours, during which the nuns would gather every three hours in the church, the manual labour, and the repeated daily rhythms during which one's soul could find rest. Despite that I liked all this, yet something was lacking even there.
I learned there were different orders, each with different rules and different spirit. I came to know the Franciscan nuns, Carmelites and some others. I liked something everywhere but always something was missing for me, but what? (The answer to this question I would receive many years later). However I had finally realized that on every occasion I wished to dedicate my life to God and become a nun. In my prayer I would ask God continuously where He wanted me, in which out of all these orders and communities? During my search I also came in touch with what is called Catholic Charismatic Renewal.
However, I never felt quite comfortable with that. Everybody would sing in "tongues", some would speak prophesies, everything was totally emotional and yet one more time I felt that I was a stranger. Of course I could not show this, for it would have meant that I was not enlightened by the Holy Spirit and that I held my heart closed.
During that period I also visited one of the new spiritual communities. It had been founded in the beginning of the 80's and consisted of unmarried men and women who after a long period of testing (Noviziat); would take an oath and promise destitution, virginity and obedience. Within the membership however, also belonged families with children. The couples promised destitution, obedience and spousal purity. Seeing it superficially during my first visit nothing moved me at all, it was rather the opposite. Some visitor asked during the discussion of different topics, what were the conditions for entrance into the community; whence the founder, the one responsible for the community replied thus: "Conditions? One and only one exists. Whoever wishes to enter in here, has to give away his "own" life at the entrance door ". That was it!
In the evening when I returned to my house I did not know more than before. Only that one phrase would not leave my mind!
That summer a good friend invited me to accompany him to a large meeting of different new Catholic spiritual communities in France. The diversity, songs, traditional dances of Israel, the services of the hours, the Eucharistic worship in quietness, touched me and I believed that finally I had arrived at my destination. I wished to join this community and become a nun. I returned to Germany, and during the fall I sat for my final examinations on the theological pre-seminary course which I had followed and bought a ticket for France with my last 300 marks which a friend had given me, planning never again to return. Man plans but God destines. After two weeks I learned that all the houses of the community would stay closed to visitors. How terrible! And now what? No money, no prospects, what shall I do? Glory be to God; in the last moment there was a change. One of the houses of the community was staying open, for the period of Christmas, offering a program of spiritual exercises. My money was just enough for this. A week later I found myself again in the same condition. However a woman, who had also taken part in the program of spiritual exercises, invited me to go on a pilgrimage. Immediately after the pilgrimage she gave me some money and paid for my train ticket to what is called Mutterhaus (the main monastery of the community) in a different part of France. There I spent one more week always hoping finally to speak with the founder of the community and to get him to allow me to enter it. I remained there for a week, but at the end it was not that clear to him that entering this community was what God had destined for me. During one of the vespers he laid his hands on my head and having prayed for me revealed the inner word he had received: "My ways are not also yours. I shall show you another way which you cannot yet understand. But I demand from you absolute availability".
With these words, therefore, I was sent away one more time. And now where to? I was truly desperate. No one could explain these words to me or give me a perspective. However I only wanted one thing: To follow Jesus Christ and dedicate my life to him. It was terrible. Apart from my disappointment, it created in me an inner doubt, that perhaps God either did not want me, or else I was too stupid to find the place for which He had destined me. Again someone felt sorry for me and gave me money to return home. I had left my house with the intention never to return, yet now, a few weeks later I found myself unannounced in front of my parents' house. (Before this I had stayed for a week at a monastery in France to remain in silence and calm my soul. I had achieved the first but not the second). My parents naturally were happy I returned, but I was totally disoriented. The following two weeks I passed living almost totally secluded praying in my room. At the same time within me continuously sounded the phrase: "Whoever wishes to enter in here has to give away his "own" life at the entrance door". A battle was being waged inside me. On the one hand nothing attracted me there, the destitution, strange bearded faces with old rasa, no electricity, no running water, a primitive toilet, no private space and many other things.Yet that phrase would not leave me in peace. All this was basically what I wished for, what I searched for within me from the moment of my conversion, this total dedication to Christ without seeking anything for myself any more and abandoning everything worldly. Well, I decided to take a chance; I immediately decided to phone, it was Friday afternoon, and ask if I could spend the weekend. If the answer was negative then I would close that chapter and would never open it again (secretly inside me in some way I hoped for it). The answer was positive. All right then. The next day I went there and this time it was different. The exterior things did not repel me that much anymore and I had a long conversation with the founder that concerned my interior search over the past months. He proposed that I stay with the community for four months, until the 15th August, to enable myself with calmness and prayer to ask God for my destiny.
After three weeks there I had the impression that I had found my place. Above everything else I loved the silence and the noetic prayer but I also learned to love more and more the simplicity and immediacy of life and did not wish to exchange it for a more comfortable life. Here also I experienced the Roman Catholic Church from a totally different side. Even though I had become a Catholic at a parish which was much oriented towards modernism, now I was in a community where the love for the Pope and obedience to him were written in capital letters.
One would follow with zeal and direct oneself according to what he said and did. I found that quite difficult and I always felt like a rebel who participated with grinding teeth or with extreme reluctance in it. Many years were necessary until my disposition in this matter would change!
A year later I began my noviciate (noviziat). One year after this, I made the first vows for three years. Afterwards followed again the so- called temporary vows (For another three years) and then the vows of dedication for my entire life. However, at that time I found that I was absolutely not in the state to give such so co-called eternal vows; yet I was in a great internal crisis and was wavering, full of uncertainty. I thought that all these were an interior assault, bad thoughts and emotions that one must not allow, thus I turned away from all the "inner chaos" and I made the vows. The wind storm lightened up a bit but I could not truly calm down. This could also be symptomatic of my journey. As I already noted, many things would attract me in the various orders and communities, yet always something was missing which at that time I could not name. In this community, everything was more refined, and though nothing was missing, I could not find even here the true inner calmness, that deep inner certainty that here I had finally arrived at my final destination. Those thoughts and the vague feeling of nostalgia that would continuously come out from deep inside me, I believed came from the evil one and that I should struggle spiritually against them and for this reason should not allow under any circumstances such thoughts and emotions. I believed that true peace and the certainty that someone had arrived at his final destination, was to be found only in heaven, and that in life everyone remains "on the way" and in the earthly life remains always in an inner restlessness and silent melancholy.
It never crossed my mind that I would ever leave this community. With the exception of a few crises, which anyone who follows this road would anyway surely experience, I was glad and happy there. I loved my spiritual father; the founder of the community, and the brothers and sisters. Also, I gladly did the various duties they placed on me. I don't wish to be misunderstood: even today I do not have any hostility toward them, rather I respect their good will, zeal, and eagerness for total dedication and I learned many things there for which today I am grateful. Despite all this I left the community after 21 years. Why?
While in the beginning I was orientated very much towards modernism, developments in the Roman Catholic Church of all probable sorts of theories; new theological currents, which were justified by the theory that the Holy Spirit guides us continuously deeper into the truth; the many departures from the Church; the lack of priests and the lack of new monastics, put me, with the passing of time, to progressively deeper thought. Because the youth would not go to church anymore, they would try with different ways of liturgical experimenting to win them back; for example rock music during liturgy, disco, use of SMS for intercessions, liturgies which the youth attended by going to the church on skateboards and skates and other similar things. I had the impression that everything sacred was being sold and adapted only so as to present it to the people in the most attractive way. I fell into an ever growing dilemma. On one side I would become progressively more conservative, because I was convinced that whatever is sacred must be kept sacred. On the other hand our community was ecumenical. Inspired by Pope John Paul 2nd, who started to pray together with the representatives of different religions, dialogue with other religions was also written in our community with capital letters. We were open to other denominations, other religions and spiritual currents - naturally with the hope to win them over to the Roman Catholic Church. One manner of expressing this was music. As an example, we were singing certain songs that resembled Hindu mantras (Hindu prayers) except we would sing the name "Jeschuah" for example to come to an internal concentration and peace. During our prayers we embodied also Orthodox elements; for example we would sing on Saturday evenings sections of the Orthodox Vespers in the German language with Russian melodies and other Orthodox psalms. One of my main responsibilities in the community was liturgy.
The meeting with Orthodoxy - my way home.
In 2005 the community celebrated 25 years of existence. Taking advantage of this occasion it was allowed to all the members of the community, who had never yet visited Jerusalem, to go there on a pilgrimage tour. We arrived in Jerusalem three weeks before the Orthodox Pascha (Easter). Since dialogue was a significant element in our community, we took part in the liturgies of the different denominations. We went to the Armenian Church, the Copts, Franciscans, to the Russian Orthodox nuns at the monastery of Saint Mary Magdalene, to the Mount of Olives and to the Greek Orthodox liturgy at the Church of the Resurrection. The variety of denominations in Jerusalem was impressive and one could discover something everywhere. The first Greek Orthodox liturgy I experienced was on Pascha at the Church of the Resurrection. This was the decisive experience. It is difficult for me to describe what I experienced there. I felt I was in heaven or that heaven had descended to earth. At that time I did not know what the Cherubic Hymn was, however, when I heard it for the first time, I felt such a deep self-concentration and I thought that at that moment the angels were chanting with the people. (Later I learned that two emissaries of the Russian Tsar had felt the same when they experienced the liturgy in Constantinople for the first time). My deepest experience was the certainty of an inner knowledge; NOW I HAVE ARRIVED HOME! This was as if an answer to my interior uneasiness. This was what I had lacked, as I said earlier, it was this interior experience. Then I did not know much of the history of the Church, about the Filioque, the schism etc.
At that time I could not, nor did I want to, discuss it with the founder of our community. First I wanted to get to know the Orthodox Church more deeply. This could happen at the beginning only during liturgy. However, how could I follow this up? After the celebration of Pentecost we had to return. And then what?
Glory be to God, for divine providence guided my path.
As I said earlier, my responsibility was the liturgy. Thus on the feast of the Holy Spirit, I received from the founder of our community the order to remain with another sister, for one year in Jerusalem and to study the various liturgies. I had to move like the bees to gather the honey, namely, every Sunday I had to visit a different liturgy, learn psalms, take notes and see what from these we could embody in our liturgy. It was a duty toward the union of the Churches. This way I would visit sometimes the Armenians, at others the Russian Orthodox nuns on the Mount of Olives or the Greek Orthodox liturgy at the Church of the Resurrection. Apart from all this, we had to celebrate once every week the Divine Liturgy according to the Orthodox Typicon with a Catholic priest, with the intention to pray for the union.
During this period of the cycle of liturgies I would always wait for the next Greek liturgy. Glory be to God; at that time there was a young Orthodox deacon, a guardian of Golgotha, who could speak English very well and was very open. I could ask him about the liturgy, learn some psalms and exchange views on the differences between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church. I truly owe him a lot! He would answer all my questions with infinite patience and above all, he never tried to influence me, something that was very significant for me. For later, in comparison with "my" community, they would say that I was influenced by the Orthodox. However, I experienced exactly the opposite; I was pressured by the Roman Catholics. They would always try to convince me that here was the fullness of the truth, and that no one could dispute the superiority of the Pope etc. From the Orthodox side I would only receive answers to my questions and information. Naturally everyone would confess that they were certain that the Orthodox Church is the true Church of Christ, but no one ever pushed me to become Orthodox!
Three months passed in this way, with the liturgies, the study and the exchange of views. It was a beautiful, intensive but also a very difficult period for me, because I could not show that inside me the attraction for Orthodoxy was growing all the more, otherwise, it was certain that they would demand that I return immediately to Germany! After these three months another problem appeared. Our visas had expired and we had either to try to renew them or return to Germany and then come back. I was afraid of the latter because I was sure, that my spiritual father would have realized that something was not going well with me. An Orthodox priest I knew, advised me to turn to an Orthodox bishop. Probably he could help me on the matter of the visa. I went and met with him, and explained everything. I also explained about my experience during that liturgy at the Church of the Resurrection during Pascha and that I was questioning myself more and more whether I should become Orthodox. If however I had to return to Germany, it would spell the "end" for me.
The bishop gave me the wise advice to confess the truth to the spiritual father of my community and ask to be released for a year from the community with the purpose of reading, studying and continuing to visit the liturgy, so as to come to know the beauty and the depth of Orthodoxy but also the human weaknesses and errors, so that after this one year I would be able to make a wise decision. I liked this advice; so I wrote a letter to my spiritual father to request this release. I clearly wrote to him that I did not wish to make a decision from a first impression of love and enthusiasm but that I needed the time for study and investigation. This request was decisively declined as may be seen from this excerpt from his letter to me:"......
To set the matter of one's conversion after a four month residence shows more the lack of one's conviction in Catholic beliefs than to the guidance of God. From the Catholic point of view the proof that the Orthodox Church represents more the truth of God than the Catholic Church cannot be accepted." Apart from this they emphasized that since I was sent with a mission to Jerusalem and for this reason only; I could not be released so as to research my own case.
"I can no longer return! It is about a matter of conscience which I must and wish to place in front of everyone. These past days I read your letter truly many times and I studied it with prayers and what became most clear was "I am already on the other side". At this time there is no longer a possibility of return. However, this does not mean that I already decided to change my faith.
I passed the night praying in the Church and the following day during Divine Liturgy I received the monastic tonsure from the elder. Those two days were the happiest days of my life. "Finally I had arrived home".
This astonishing article with its liveliness that characterizes the personal testimony touches on matters of vital importance to ecclesiastical life. At this point we thought best not to intervene but to just stress the much discussed topic of the inter-Christian dialogues which indeed receives an answer here. We ought to underline the purely traditional Orthodox position of the fathers to whom a thirsty soul turned to Christ. They responded to all her questions without struggling to convince her or to pressure her into anything. At the same time they confessed with conviction their faith that Orthodoxy is the One, Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ. This became obvious to the heterodox (woman) and played a decisive role in her spiritual journey. The dialogues should not be characterized by love but by The Love and this Love- which is Christ- is at the same time truth and freedom. The Ecumenists have dethroned love and have substituted for her empty expressions of love, politeness, public relations tricks etc. everything from the opposite shore. However what is the consequence? ZERO.... And below zero.... Let us not believe that those who are outside the Church are idiots. They are also children of God and perhaps they long for Him even more sincerely than us, so let us not send them empty away.