Orthodoxy Feels Fine

Author: Alva James
Date Published: 12/01/1990

Members of Sts. Sergius and Herman Orthodox Community Church in East Syracuse always have believed in unity.

They picked up that quality when they were “Christian New Agers” who emphasized communal living and alternative lifestyles.

So when their national organization, which until three years ago was known as the Holy Order of MANS, began making a spiritual journey, members of the Syracuse group followed.

They traveled from a belief in the “dawning of the age of Aquarius” to a faith rooted in Orthodox Christian tradition.

Now members, who since July have had a church at 6421 Franklin Park Drive, are rejoicing over what they’ve found.

“We’ve been enhanced by having come in contact with this tradition, which seemed to open the way for everything we were searching for,” said Father Philip McCaffery, who leads the congregation. “The thing that held us together throughout all this is we always had a sense of community. That’s something we got from the New Age Movement.”

Community Began in 1970s

The Christian Community of Syracuse, which today as Sts. Sergius and Herman consists of 35 adult members and their children, formed about 17 years ago when missionaries from the Holy Order of MANS settled in Syracuse.

The missionaries brought with them the message of Paul Blighton, their founder and spiritual leader, who believed in the teachings of Christ combined with the New Age Movement, which offered mysticism and a radical spirit to many who were leaving Western religions in the 1960s.

McCaffery said the group, which had about 1,500 members nationally, was never really accepted by Christians or New Agers.

Yvonne Martin, 48, said she joined the order about 14 years ago when she was earnestly seeking spiritual enlightenment. As a former Catholic she had been in a religious order for seven years and quit after realizing that her commitment was half-hearted.

“When I realized I no longer belonged with Catholicism I also realized I needed that empty space filled,” she explained.

Christian Spirit in Astrology

Martin and a friend began attending an astrology class taught by David Davis, who now owns Seven Rays Bookstore at 508 Westcott St. Davis, at the time, was a member of the Holy Order of MANS.

“I got interested in the flavor of his presentations,” Martin recalled. “There was a Christian message somewhere in there, which to me contradicted Christianity, but somehow I detected a Christian spirit. I kept going back to class, not to study astrology,” she said, “but to pick up a Christian spirit.”

In the early days, followers in the Syracuse area met in apartments throughout the community. Later they began renting a house on Gorland Street. A chapel was set up downstairs, and some of Blighton’s followers who believed in communal living settled upstairs.

In those days the group focused on meditations, such as visualization, which members used to visualize being filled with God’s light. It’s a practice the church has dropped since converting to Orthodoxy 3 1/2 years ago.

‘Spiritualism Is Harmful’

“Christians are forbidden to do that kind of thing because spiritualism is harmful,” said McCaffery.

The Holy Order of MANS — known today as Christ the Savior Brotherhood — didn’t begin to convert to Orthodoxy until Blighton’s death in 1974.

Members were beginning to feel an emptiness with the New Age philosophy, which McCaffery now refers to as “American Paganism.”

They began to view the “everything goes” philosophy of the New Age Movement as destructive to society and the daily meditations such as visualization as being psychologically harmful to people, McCaffery said.

And they no longer found reincarnation compatible with their Christian beliefs.

Member Donna Jones said she had hoped the meditations would give her spiritual enlightenment, but they didn’t.

“It wasn’t working,” said Jones, who used to spend about two hours a day meditating. “We were not able to stop being angry with people.”

So the national organization began its journey toward becoming Christian. Its new director, Andrew Rossi, led the church into searching for its Christian identity.

McCaffery said the congregation looked at Protestant churches but felt they lacked a mystic dimension and an understanding of ceremony in worship. They looked at Catholicism and found it too institution- alized, he said. They settled with the Orthodox Church.

Orthodox Baptism in ’87

They were baptized into the Orthodox faith in July 1987 by Abbot Herman Podmashensky of the St. Herman of Alaska Brotherhood.

“When we found the Orthodox tradition we felt it fit like crazy, like all of a sudden we round this and everything fit,” he said. “We could not keep our non-Christian ideas and practices, but all our ideals and longings were actually enhanced.”

But the transition wasn’t an easy one. McCaffery said the organization lost about half its members.

Davis, for one, said he couldn’t handle the change.

“They were removing things like astrology, Thoreau, reincarnation and a lot mystic teachings and started becoming more and more a conservative Christian group,” he said. “They were no longer studying various religions.

“My impression is it was coming from the top,” he said. “There is always great change when an order of an organization dies.”

Members of Sts. Sergius and Herman Church are trying to share what they’ve found with others in the community.

“We’re interested in bringing Americans back to their roots,” said Jones.

The church helped organize the Valaam Society of Central New York, which runs the Orthodox Books and Icons store in North Salina Street and has a weekly local cable television program called “Tradition Today.”

Father Hanna Sakkab of St. Elias Orthodox Church on Onondaga Hill referred to the group as “sincere Christians.”

“As Orthodox Christians they are faithful to Orthodoxy and practice what we practice in liturgy and Holy Sacrament,” he said. “They recite the same creed without any change. But the only thing is they are not recognized by the Council of Orthodox Bishops of America.”

McCaffery said the congregation, which is in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Vasilopolis, is not seeking that recogniztion at this point.

Sakkab said many Christians are returning to Orthodoxy.

“They missed the worship part,” he said. “The things (Christians) experienced and practiced in the first century have not been found. People have been through many experiences trying most movements and found themselves lost. At last they’re finding the faithful church that has been keeping the same teachings and traditions of the first Christian church.”