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Spiritual quest takes Orthodox cantor through various music

By Virginia de Leon

Matthew Gallatin’s spiritual quest led him on a long, windy road that included ascents of awakening and discovery, as well as steep downward slopes that sometimes caused him to despair.

Matthew Gallitin

His journey allowed him to experience many facets of Christianity—Brethren, Methodist, Seventh-Day Adventist, Evangelical, Pentecostal, non-denominational and charismatic churches—before he came to the doorstep of St. John the Baptist Antiochian Orthodox Church in Post Falls.

Having grown up in a musical family and having sung gospel, pop and folk music at home, in coffee houses and in church, he began using his musical gifts as cantor, chanting Byzantine melodies soon after starting at St. John the Baptist.

“Music has a power and is the purest expression of worship,” he said.

He finds fulfilment in these simple chants, he said, especially when compared to the music he played as part of a worship band. They also feel more natural since the cantor’s melodies set the tone and flow of the service. “It’s an expression of your heart in addition to musicianship,” he said. “The music is spiritually elevating.”

During his first visit to St. John in 1996, Matthew was overcome with awe as he stood before an altar of icons and burning lamps, and as he breathed in the scent of incense as it wafted in the air.

At last, he felt at home.

“I felt like I was walking into the courts of heaven,” he recalled. “I found what I was looking for all my life.  I felt that connectedness to the Christians of the first millennium and I knew, as I stood there, that Christ was far bigger than what I understood of him.”

Orthodoxy presented Matthew with an ancient way of worship and a spiritual lifestyle “that allows Christ to penetrate every aspect of my life,” he said. “I am joined intimately to him, to my brothers and sisters in my parish and to the Orthodox Christians who from the first century have shared this very unique life of the Spirit.”

On Holy Saturday in April 1997, Matthew and his wife, Alice, along with their 12-year-old daughter, Kaci, were received into the Orthodox Church.  Last year, they were joined by their son, Joshua, daughter-in-law and grandchild.

Soon after starting at St. John, Matthew became the church’s cantor. Reared in a musical household by a mother who was a pianist and a father who played guitar, Matthew had been singing and performing since he was a child. So it seemed almost natural for him to use his musical talents to give glory to God.

Since he began attending St. John, the church also has grown from just a few dozen members to a congregation of several hundred.  After completing its building in 1997, the parish started drawing families from throughout North Idaho and also from across the border in Eastern Washington. In 2003, it became so big that members decided to establish a mission parish in Spokane Valley, Christ the Savior Orthodox Christian Church.

Matthew and his family will move later this year to Bonners Ferry, Idaho, where St. John has started a small parish, Holy Myrrhbearing Women Orthodox Mission.

The Bonners Ferry-Sandpoint area is currently home to 10 to 15 Orthodox families, according to Matthew.  Most are converts from various denominations. The long drive to Post Falls often didn’t allow these families to participate in the church’s liturgy and sacrament.  So they started a mission parish.

Members from the three parishes—St. John, Christ the Savior and Holy Myrrhbearing Women—have also been involved in various mission projects in Mexico, Romania and Africa.

After spending nearly 14 years teaching philosophy part-time at Gonzaga and then later at North Idaho College, Matthew left his post at NIC to devote more time to writing and to the mission of his church—to introduce people to the ancient world of Eastern Christianity and to help Orthodox Christians grow together into “the unity of the faith” and “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,” he said.

Matthew wrote about his journey into Eastern Orthodoxy in the 2002 book, “Thirsting for God in a Land of Shallow Wells.”

Now, he travels around the country facilitating retreats and seminars on topics ranging from liturgical music and iconography to evangelism and discerning the will of God in one’s life.

During his presentations, he also tells people about his voyage of faith.

Matthew grew up on a dairy farm in western Pennsylvania. He was one of four children in a family that dedicated their lives to their Christian faith. His parents belonged to the Church of the Brethren when he was born but spent many years attending a Methodist church. When Matthew was 12, a family friend introduced them to Seventh-day Adventism, which then became the driving force in their lives.

As a young man in 1970, Matthew left the East Coast and moved to College Place, Wash., to study ministry at Walla Walla University, an institution affiliated with the Seventh-day Adventist Church that until last year was known as Walla Walla College.

During his sophomore year there, he started questioning his faith, wondering to himself why Adventists adhered to certain laws.

One day, while preparing for class as the lay assistant to the church’s youth director, he heard a voice:  “Matthew, do you know what you believe?”

“Yes,” he answered out loud.

When the voice asked, “Is it the truth?” he didn’t know the answer.

Matthew began to scrutinize everything he believed by reading the Bible and church doctrines. Five years later, he and Alice started attending other churches, gravitating toward “something charismatic.”  They ended up at Calvary Chapel, a non-denominational Christian congregation in Couer d’Alene. 

Matthew became music minister and a year later, in 1983, he was ordained a minister and became the church’s pastor.

Doubts and distress emerged as members turned to him with questions about God and truth.  He didn’t know what to tell them and decided he could no longer be a pastor.  At 34, 11 years after he struggled with Adventism, he was again in despair.

Again, he and his wife explored different churches “to find an objective, clear validation” for his belief that Jesus was not a concept but a divine person “who is unchanging in his characteristics.”

He decided to pursue a master’s degree in philosophy at Gonzaga University.  His study of St. Augustine led him to the writings of the early Greek fathers, including St. Irenaeus of Lyons.

Matthew wanted to relate to Jesus the way early Christians did, he explains on his website, by participating in the sacraments of the faith, especially the Eucharist.

After years of meditation and study, he concluded that the only place the early Church’s sacramental life has been preserved is in the Eastern Orthodox Church.

For him, that conclusion is more than theological or theoretical.

“The Eucharist is Christ.  It is His body and blood.  Partaking of it is a physical experience that produces transformation of heart, soul, mind, and body.   The power of the Eucharist is in what it is, not in how I view it theologically.  So I guess that makes my interest in it practical,” he said.

 “With great joy, I fell in love with a church that had such love and such a dynamic relationship with Christ,” said Matthew, who is now 55.

“The truth about Christ isn’t something we have to interpret.  It is a historical reality that’s been preserved in the Orthodox Church,” he believes.

Matthew now challenges people by asking them the questions he asked himself during his own journey.

“Life in Christ is about transformation, which implies moving and doing.  We have to be willing to embrace that to see where God is bringing us,” he said.

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