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Saturday Night Vigil

“What’s your favorite way to spend Saturday night?”

I need to qualify this first, by saying that I almost never get to spend Saturday night the way I would like to.  Due to issues of time, distance, and the fact that I share my life with a spouse, my time is not generally my own, and I usually spend Saturday night either reading or watching something of passing interest on television.

But my favorite, my very favorite, my all-time favorite was of spending Saturday night is…at a Vigil.  As in, preparation for Sunday worship.

Vigil in the Russian Orthodox Church has its own special quality.  Because it takes place in the evening, the lighting is quieter; our parish does use up-lighting along the walls, but it’s very muted, and the only other light comes from oil lamps and candles.  The chanting of the choir is similarly muted, and the rubrics are always concerned with the celebration of Sunday’s Feast – a saint, or a major Feast of the Church such as the Annunciation, or the Transfiguration, or Palm Sunday.  (There are twelve major Feasts of the Church, in addition to Pascha, known in the West as Easter – that’s its own Feast, the Feast of Feasts, and the Vigil preceding Pascha is much more energized and full of anticipation than any other Vigil.)

I like the reflective quality of Vigil.  I like having time to digest the feelings of the hymnographers, and to find an echo within myself of what greater minds and spirits have put into exquisite poetry.  I like the feeling of being washed over by the Feast to come, and the way I leave the church full of anticipation for the next morning.  And I always think, “This is how life should be, this is how wonderful we should always feel about Sunday, the Lord’s Day.”

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday – Pascha – and once again, I will be missing Vigil, due to the distance from church, due to the exigencies of old age, and, selfishly, due to the fact that I have always been a Morning Person, and staying up until past midnight causes me a great deal of physical stress – before the fact, anyway, since I’ve attended the Paschal Vigil many times in the past, and always come out feeling refreshed and energized.  This year I will sit with my prayer book and read the Vigil prayers, think about all my fellow Orthodox Christians around the world who are able to be present for Vigil – and those who are not – I will whisper the familiar music to myself, and tomorrow morning I will wake up to the incomparable awareness:

CHRIST IS RISEN!  XPICTOC BOCKPEC!  XPUCTOC AVECTI!  TRULY HE IS RISEN!

“Have you ever gone to a new place or tried a new experience and thought to yourself, ‘I’m never doing that again!’ Tell us about it.”

In the summer of 2000, I was a choir director at a Greek Orthodox church whose chief qualification seems to have been that I was the only member of the choir who could read music, and that I knew most of the music these folks were singing.  And there it might have remained, had I not received in the mail a notification concerning something called the Summer School of Liturgical Music.

When I mention this school to people, visions automatically rise in their minds of old ladies singing, “What a Friend We Have in GEEEE-zus,” off-key.  Well, they have the old-lady part right:  The only person in that choir who was younger than I was my son.  For the rest, though, let me put it this way:  Orthodox services are entirely sung, and the music is supposed to help people understand what Heaven sounds like; when it’s done right, it does sound like Heaven.  You don’t sing off-key, and nobody in the Orthodox world sings cutesy little ditties from the nineteenth century.  I’m breaking out in hives just thinking about it.

And these old ladies were good.  They had sung together since high school, every single Sunday, and they knew this stuff cold.  Which isn’t to say that they could have sung without a director; even though they had known one another for fifty and sixty years, they’d talk non-stop if I let them, and lose their place in the music in nothing flat.  (Or sharp.  Sorry.  Couldn’t resist.)  So they needed a director, and what they got was – me.

Always room for improvement, they say, so when I got this brochure in the mail from the Summer School of Liturgical Music, I jumped at the opportunity to learn a bit more about my craft.  Of course…I should have realized that I was in for an entirely different experience when I saw that one side of the brochure was in English and the other in Russian.

SSLM, to give it its abbreviated title, is held for two weeks every summer at a Russian Orthodox Monastery in Upstate New York, about twenty miles north of Cooperstown (home of the Baseball Museum).  The entire course takes three years to complete. and anyone who completes it earns three college credits.  There are courses in Church Music History, Solfege (sight reading), Music Theory, Voice Production, Choral Methods, and Choir Direction – and that’s only the musical portion of the course.  There are also courses in the Structure of Divine Services and Church Slavonic, the Russian equivalent of King James English.  Students who are graduating that year have two weeks to pull together a disparate group of people who have probably never sung together before, and form them into a choir that can perform a piece of music roughly equivalent to something written by Rachmaninoff.

This is what I signed up for.

Nobody who takes this course has any idea of what it’s actually like before that first year.  It’s a little like military basic training must be:  two weeks of being shuffled from class to class, while instructors throw knowledge at you that takes you through a thousand years of Russian Church history, and seventeen hundred years of Orthodox Church music.  You’re in class for eight hours every day, and the classes held at noon and five p.m. always run over, since those instructors take the opportunity to cram a little extra into resistant brains.  At least they don’t scream it at you, the way DIs do.

Here’s the kicker:  Most of the people there have at least some idea of what the music sounds like.  They’ve been singing it in their choirs back home, and they’re just there to refine skills they already have.  Not me.  Greek music and Russian music are like from two different solar systems.  Sometimes I wonder:  If this music is really sung by the angels, as the Orthodox believe, are there Greek angels and Russian angels in Heaven?  What do they sound like when they get together?  Do they get together?  In this world, Greeks wouldn’t be caught dead singing that “Western-sounding Russian music,” and Russians think that Greek music sounds like camel-calling (hat tip to M.T. Riggs, husband of a dear friend of mine).  That’s how different the music is.  I had never heard any of the Russian music, and I was supposed to have whole melodies memorized.  In two weeks.  On top of Church Slavonic, Church Music History, Music Theory, etc., etc., and so forth.

And all the music was in Russian.  Fortunately, I could read Cyrillic (barely – the last time I was exposed to it, I was fifteen).  And I could read music.  In addition, most of the classes were held in English, so I wasn’t completely lost.  Note the operative word, “most” – there’s one instructor who’s a bit sensitive about his English (which is perfectly good), so he insists on teaching in Russian, and relies on the School to provide translators for us Cultural Illiterati.

This is the environment I found myself in, for two weeks.  No escape possible:  My husband had driven me out, and would be back in two weeks to collect me.  Oh, and the housing arrangements were, to say the least, monastic:  Rooms the size of cells, each with two World-War-II-surplus Army cots, whose springs were so shot that boards had been fastened to the bottoms of the beds to provide support for Flopsy-Bunny mattresses.  Three toilets and one shower per floor – and the showers, that first year at least,  lacked even the most rudimentary flow-control valves, so that you’d be peacefully showering, and someone would flush a toilet – anywhere in the building – and you’d get scalded.  Or someone would be showering on the other floor, and you’d freeze because they had diverted the hot water.

There were two bright spots:  The church services, and the food.  This being a monastery, there were church services every day, beginning at 6:00 a.m., and if you happened to be up at that hour, you could walk the mile from the guesthouse to the church, sit or stand in the back, and soak it all in.  Weekday services aren’t as glorious as Sunday services, but there’s something about worshipping at that hour of the day that more than makes up for the sleepy singing emanating from monks who’ve been up since four a.m.

And the food was nothing short of phenomenal.  The School had its own kitchen, staffed by the wife and kids of the School’s Director, and these people cranked it out three times a day in true Russian style – lavishly, prodigally, and on a shoestring.  I don’t know how they did it, but we never went hungry, and there was always plenty of talk and laughter at the table.  They knew what we only dimly perceived:  There was no way we could sustain the frenetic pace set for us by the requirements of the curriculum, without a lavish diet.  Yet I always lost weight during those two weeks.

At the end of the two weeks, that first year, I was cross-eyed and beyond cranky.  Some of the conducting was so slow that I had to breathe between syllables, forget about not breathing for whole phrases.  I took to mouthing the words without making a sound, so it looked like I was singing, but at least I could breathe.  I gritted my teeth, passed all my classes (except Slavonic – I have never yet passed that course), got through the final exam for the graduates, which was a full hour-long concert, and promised myself I’d never set foot in that School again.

Only one problem:  I couldn’t get that music out of my head.

When I got back to my own choir, Greek music really did sound like camel-calling, and I ended up giving up my post as choir director.  I played my taped copy of the final exam over and over and over, just for the pleasure of listening to that music; I found myself thinking, at odd hours of the day, of the peace that surrounded the monastery.  At 6:00 a.m., it was so quiet you could hear the bees buzzing in their hives.  You could hear traffic approaching from half a mile away.  By Easter of the following year, I knew I’d be going back.

Due to the distance between my home and the nearest Russian Orthodox parish – fifty miles – I was unable to attend Russian services every week, so it took me an extra year to complete that course (except for Slavonic).  But in 2003, I finally achieved my goal:  I became a certificated choir director of the Russian Orthodox Church.  And I am so grateful I ignored my initial declaration of, “Never again!”

In the Mood – Not

Back to the NaBloPoMo prompts, at least for the time being:  “How do you find the energy to write when you’re not in the mood?”

Only a professional writer could ask this question.  For the rest of us, the dilettantes, this is a non-starter.  If you’re not in the mood to write, you don’t write.  Simple.

But “not being in the mood to write” is actually a symptom of something else going on.  I think it depends on what you’re trying to write.  When writer’s block crops up in my fiction writing, I have found that it’s usually because I’m trying to force my characters to do something they don’t want to do.  I’ve written about this before, how your characters become real people with real lives, and you are just their chronicler; you get a Brilliant Idea that you think would fit their lives perfectly, but somehow, they don’t think so, and they simply stop “talking.”  At that point, you have to give them space to recover their trust in you, so that you can go on as their chronicler; and that’s how fiction gets written, at least around here.  I could never write a mystery, where you have to know what the end is before you begin.

Non-fiction is a different animal altogether.  When I was in college, I would develop all these Plans for Staying on Top of My Assignments:  Come up with a topic in Week 1; write the preliminary outline in Week 2; assemble the information in Week 3, etc.  Yes, I’m one of those Organized Types.  Franklin Planners were created for people like me.

There was just one problem:  None of it worked.  By the time the paper was due, my original outline bore no resemblance to the finished product.  Over time, I came to realize that I was wasting my time drafting outlines, because I would then go about my research with the outline in mind, rather than integrating what I was learning into the research process.  That was when I came up with my Take-No-Prisoners approach:  Hold off on the research until two weeks before the paper was due.  By that time, there was usually a topic that was screaming for development, and I could do the research to greatest effect, wasting no time at all.  With two days to go, I’d sit down and write the paper.  And it always got an A.

There was one other tool that I used to great effect in writing research papers, and I got it from my husband, one of those much-maligned Government Workers; he got it from one of his supervisors, a Navy Captain. Believe it or not, you start your paper with the phrase, “The purpose of this paper is to…” and state the purpose of your paper.  Then you throw away that opening phrase.  BANG!  You’ve grabbed your reader’s attention, and you have an easy reference point for staying in focus.

The only time it almost didn’t work was when I wanted to prove that it was possible to read body language when you couldn’t actually see the person; in that case, I wrote, as usual, “The purpose of this paper is to prove that you don’t have to see a person to understand his emotional state,” and in that case, in order to throw away that opening phrase, I had to turn the topic into a question:  “Is it possible to understand a person’s emotional state without actually seeing him?”  The professor said it was one of the best opening sentences she had ever read.  (I was referring to internet communication, by the way; all caps and misspellings are a great way to tap into a person’s heightened emotional state.)

So when I lack the energy to write, I listen to my inner muse.  She’s trying to tell me something important.

Home Sweet Home

“Describe your dream house” – yet another Plinky prompt, but I can tie this one in to the NaBloPoMo theme of energy, because my dream house would use a minimum.

Mind you, I’m fussy about aesthetics, too.  Very fussy.  If I were to use wind power, for example, I wouldn’t have one of those windmills that looks like the drones out of Star Wars.  I’d build a windmill like the ones you see in Dutch landscapes.  Much classier.  What I’m primarily interested in, though, is geothermal energy, best described as “everything old is new again.”  You can use it not only to heat your house, but also to power it; in other words, you can go off the grid.  Supplement your geothermal plant with a root cellar as an alternative form of refrigeration, and you’re all set for power and water.

With the basics of energy sources out of the way, it’s time to talk about design.  The appeal of a “hobbit hole” is strong, and many years ago, I knew a woman whose retirement cottage was built into the side of a hill.  I can think of a lot of advantages to such a design – mostly geothermal – but there are two major drawbacks for me.  One is, where would you wipe off your feet?  You need a mudroom where you can change out of your outdoor gear into something that will keep the house clean.  And the other, of course, is that the space in a hillside is limited.  I don’t necessarily need a big house – I don’t live in one now – but I need more space than four hundred square feet.

So my ideal house is probably going to be along the lines of a log cabin, something that looks as if it grew out of the trees surrounding it.  Of course there are trees surrounding my ideal home.  Not too many – you have to think about mold – but the clear-cutting I see that heralds new construction always breaks my heart.  What do you do for shade in the summertime?  You have to have a few trees.  My house has a front porch for sitting out in the evening, and a back porch where I can hang my laundry, rain or shine.  We once lived in a house that had just such a “utility porch,” and I couldn’t get over how well my clothes dried in even the wettest weather.

The utility porch out back would lead into the mudroom, and the mudroom would actually be quite large, because it would house not just the footgear, but also a coat closet, cubbies for hates and gloves, a washing machine, a potting table for the resident gardener (my husband), and a utility closet with space for all his gardening gear and all my cleaning supplies.  That leads into the kitchen, a big ol’ farmhouse eat-in kitchen.  Like Russians, I firmly believe that the best and most authentic social life takes place in the kitchen.  Living rooms, if not used for the life of the family, are for pretentious old fuffs.

Which brings us to the living room.  Where I grew up, we didn’t have Family Rooms and Living Rooms.  An earlier generation had Parlors and Dining Rooms, and the “family room” was the kitchen; I’d still want any entertaining we did to take place in the kitchen, but I need a place for stuff that earlier generations didn’t deem necessary, like my husband’s and my music and literary libraries (substantial enough to constitute a branch of the local public library).  I’d want built-in shelves lining the walls of my living-room-cum-library, not just because they look classy, but also because you can use books as insulation.  The boob tube would hide discreetly behind a tambour, but a boob tube there must be; how else could I watch NCIS and Foyle’s War?

Nowadays, a two-bathroom house seems to be a must.  Whenever my mother-in-law would get on my nerves too greatly, I would silence her by telling tales of growing up in a house of seven people and one bathroom; only child that she was, such a concept was too horrible for her to dwell on, and rendered her speechless for at least fifteen minutes.  Not having at least two bathrooms was inconceivable to her, and I guess it is to most people nowadays, so okay, we can have two bathrooms in my dream house.  But I insist that one of them have a walk-in shower, all tile-lined for ease of cleaning, with a built-in seat.  The other, of course, has a bathtub, preferably porcelain, which holds the heat better than fiberglass.

Then there are the bedrooms.  There have to be at least four, preferably five:  One for my husband and one for myself (in our present arrangement, he can hear me tossing and turning at the opposite end of the house, with both bedroom doors closed.  I swear I am not exaggerating); one for a guest bedroom; one for an office; and one for…a chapel.  I know that the rustic German and Russian houses that I find so attractive used to have a “holy corner” where the family’s icons lived, but to get away with that, everybody in the house has to be on the same page.  My husband, who is not Orthodox, is okay with having icons in his living room, but not with my praying before them; so I’d like to have a room where I could pray in peace.

I’d have a lot of storage built into my husband’s bedroom.  The guy is a packrat.  There are piles of paper everywhere.  Sometimes I tell him that if I die before he does, the house is going to look like  the Collyer Brothers’.  I’m trying to make light of a situation that actually does scare me; sometimes, when clearing the kitchen table of months of debris, I’ll find empty envelopes from greeting cards.  Who saves empty envelopes?!

And my own bedroom would have to have a separate sitting area.  Actually, now I come to think of it, that could do double duty as a chapel, but what I really wanted it for was my cross stitch:  my frame and supplies, and storage for future projects built in.  Ideally, that needlework cubby would face the street, so I could watch what was going on outside; I have found that in the summer, I really enjoy stitching on my current (screened-in) front porch because I get to see everything that’s going on in the neighborhood, and it’s good to keep tabs on people’s comings and goings, especially when you see suspicious characters in the house across the street.

Gardens – well, that’s my husband’s thing.  My idea of a garden is the same as my stepfather’s:  He’d take plastic flowers and stick ‘em in the dirt out in front of his house.  People out for a walk would slow down and stare, trying to figure out what variety of flower he had “growing” there.  I should add, in his defense, that he was a dedicated and prolific vegetable grower, like my own husband, but he didn’t have much use for flowers.  And although I personally love flowers, what I don’t love is plunging my trowel into the dirt and seeing Creepy Crawly Things everywhere.  Ewwww!

Lifestyles of the Rich and Brainless it’s not.  But for me – it’s my ideal home.

 

It’s a Girl Thing

“How many languages can you speak? Do you wish that number were higher?”

This is another Plinky prompt, from way back in October.  I hang onto these things if they look interesting, and then, if I don’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt, I have a few spares to choose from.  Today’s NaBloPoMo prompt was something about “talk about a time when you ran out of energy and were exhausted,” and that requires too much thinking – there were so many of them.

Languages.  First of all, define “speak.”  Fluently, conversationally, basic, “kitchen [fill in the blank]“?  “Kitchen” speech refers to the kind of thing you would use around the house, by the way, but not necessarily at work, or in a formal situation.  A perfect example of “kitchen speech” is the story I heard from a girl whose mother was Russian and her father Russian-American.  The father had learned Russian first from his grandmother and then from his wife, so “household Russian” was all he knew – and “household Russian” uses a lot of diminutives.  You would never say you were taking the bus, for example, you would say you were taking the “bussy” to work, or that you had seen a cute little kitty-cat on the way to work.  Well, whatever this guy said at work one day – probably something about making some itty-bitty copies – he got some strange looks from his colleagues, until one of them took pity on him and said, “We don’t talk that way here.”

So you might surmise from this anecdote that I actually speak Russian.  Put it this way:  If I can summon up the vocabulary, I can express myself grammatically, and if I listen in on the conversation of Russians, I might understand one word in a hundred.  But hey, I understand that word.

And come to think of it, that’s pretty much how I learned German, which I do speak fluently, to such an extent that one day, I was having a conversation with a member of the German Consulate staff in Boston, who asked me where I was from.  When I told him, “New York,” I thought his eyes would fall out of his head.  Apparently, he had been listening for regional clues in my speech, and not being able to pick up where exactly I was from in Germany, decided to ask.  Sorry, this is not a regional accent you ever heard im Vaterland.

Anyway, when I lived in Germany I had a neighbor who wanted to be able to practice her English, so we got to be friendly.  The only problem was, she soon cottoned to the idea that I knew a few words in German – I was taking college-level courses at night – and that took care of the English lessons; it was simply easier for her to express herself in her own language.  And I understood maybe one word in a hundred.  Until the day, maybe about a year after I’d landed at Rhein/Main Airport, when I was sitting in a German laundromat, waiting for my laundry to get done (the base laundromat being on the fritz yet again), and, bored out of my mind, picked up a German ladies’ magazine.  And I understood enough of it that when I got out of the laundromat, I stopped at a grocery store on the way home and bought my first foreign-language publication.  Once I could understand about half of what I was reading, the other half came easily.  And of course, being able to converse daily in that language was a great help, as well as the fact that we only listened to German radio (we liked the music better than Armed Forces Network).

So if I could do the same thing with Russian, I guess I’d get fairly fluent in time.  However, there really aren’t enough people to speak it with; I get to see my church family maybe twice a month, and they all want to improve their English (and who can blame them?).  As for reading…well…I can, if I take the time to sound out the letters.  But I don’t usually have the time to put into reading that alphabet.  Yes, I know, if I really wanted to, I’d make the time.  I guess I’m just comfortable with the idea that if I wanted to, I could, which is dangerous for actually learning anything.

This post is already long enough that I can only give a passing nod to my first foreign language, which was French.  I could speak that fairly fluently, when I was fresh out of high school, and if France had had the sense to stay in NATO, and we had been posted there, I would have been a  huge hit with the French:  As Henry Higgins put it in My Fair Lady, “The French don’t care what you do, actually, as long as you pronounce it properly.”  And thanks to my musician’s ear, I can get foreign words out with near native fluency, in any language.  I may not actually understand them, but I sound as if I do.

So…what’s the Girl Thing?  Think about it.  Don’t women have a reputation for talking people’s heads off?  Of course we do, and it’s not undeserved:  This post is already at about nine hundred words.  Now:  Imagine being able to do that in four languages.  Yeeeeaaaahhhhh.  /beatific smile/

If you could be given the option to never sleep and also never be tired, would you take it if it meant you’d also never dream again?”

First, I must apologize for skipping yesterday.  I would love to be able to write that it was Russian Christmas and I was off celebrating, but the truth is, I was down with flu.  Apparently it’s true that this flu season is so bad, you can still get flu even if you’ve had the shot.  (It was still Russian Christmas.)

Now, to our muttons.  It’s tempting to say “Yes” to the prompt.  I mean, 24 hours in which to get it all done!  Imagine what you could do with the eight extra hours!  Not to mention that the idea of never dreaming again has enormous appeal, considering that the only dreams I ever have are nightmares.  My last nice dream was over 20 years ago.

But all things considered…no, I don’t think I would take it.  For one thing, I really doubt that I would be any more productive in 24 hours than I already am in 16; I waste enough time as it is.  (Facebook, anyone??)  And where would the pleasure of a really rainy night be, if I couldn’t spend it lying in bed, listening to the whisper of rain all around me until I fell asleep?  Not to mention the delicious feel of snuggling down under a quilt and finding just the right spot to burrow in…

Okay, I’m a sleep hedonist, I admit it.  But the truth is that we have been designed to need rest.  I’m married to someone who seriously thinks that rest is sinful – because it’s non-productive – so he pushes and pushes himself until evening, when he collapses into his easy chair and passes out.  Then, two hours later, he wakes up and goes to bed.  The sad part is, for all his “productivity,” it’s all there waiting for him the next day.  That’s the nature of work.  It is never done.  Just think of laundry.

And maybe that’s the difference between us.  Because I do the laundry, I’ve come to realize that work really is never done, and that in order to have any kind of life, you have to drag yourself away from it, you have to take your rest.  There has to be a time in your day when you put your feet up and read, or work a puzzle, or focus on doing something creative – restorative – regenerative.  Otherwise, what’s the point in calling yourself a human being?  You’re nothing more than a machine.

And nothing gets the point across more immediately than the need to sleep.

Which, now that’s 4:30 a.m. and I’ve been up for an hour, I’m going back to.  Sleep tight!

Celebrating Faith

Another prompt from Plinky:  “Tell us about the role that faith plays in your life — or doesn’t.”  Which can easily be combined with yet another:  “What is your favorite holiday? Why is it your favorite?”

This latter prompt was sent out just before Christmas, with the obvious inference that most people would write about Christmas:  the presents, the family time, the caring and sharing, the music, the tree, take your pick.  Don’t misunderstand.  I love Christmas, too; the classical music written for Christmas is incomparable, and there are arrangements of traditional carols that make them suitable for playing on classical stations.

But Christmas is when I most miss living in Europe, where it is a much more family-oriented celebration, and it’s when I miss the Polish traditions I was brought up with:  My husband not only is not Polish, but not remotely Slavic, and Slavic customs of any kind are alien to him.  Not to mention the consumer-driven – and I do mean driven – hysteria that grips the entire USA, best illustrated by Straight No Chaser’s “Christmas Can-Can” (pardon the ad at the beginning of the video – I don’t know how to edit it out).

So Christmas, much as I love it, will never be my favorite holiday.  Most people who read this blog will, I am sure, understand why I  say that that affection is reserved for…well…”Easter.”

I put “Easter” in quotes because what most people understand by the word is not what Easter is actually about.  Say “Easter,” and most people will relate it to the Resurrection of Christ, in one form or another, either traditionally religious or, as my son recently informed me (in tones of shock, I am grateful to say), “zombie Jesus.”  This whole zombie thing was out of hand even before that particular take on it.

But Easter is actually a pagan holiday,  the celebration of the feast of the Anglo-Saxon goddess Ioestre, the goddess of spring and fertility.  When I read that, I finally understood the point of that ridiculous Easter Bunny:  What’s more fertile than a rabbit?!  We did the Easter Bunny when I was growing up, but even before I understood the association, I found it pointless, so the Easter Bunny never visited my own children.  By which they missed out on a lot of candy, sure, but at least they never ruined their teeth, and they got to celebrate, in all its glory:

Russian Easter.

Or Pascha, as it’s referred to religiously.  After seven weeks of a rigorously-limited diet, accompanied by a daunting schedule of services during the seven weeks – the last of which is Holy Week, with services every evening, each lasting several hours – the whole thing is topped off by a celebration that begins somewhere around 11:00 p.m., and lasts until somewhere around 4:00 in the morning.  There’s really no adequate way to describe Russian Easter.  Following the lengthy recitation of Old-Testament prophecies related to the coming of the Messiah, the priest and the entire congregation sweep outside the church and circle it three times, symbolically searching for the body of Christ.  Finally the priest will pound on the closed doors of the church.  Since everybody is outside, of course there’s no answer, and so he turns to the congregation, all standing there with lit candles, and calls out:  “He is not here!  He is risen, as He said!”  Then he opens the doors of the church, everyone streams in, and the celebration begins with a joyous peal of bells, rung in accordance with rubrics that are hundreds of years old.

Every light in the place is turned on – this, in addition to the dozens and dozens of candles and oil lamps that are lit and will remain lit for the entire service.  The choir bursts into the Paschal Canon, a lengthy liturgical poem written in celebration of the Feast.  The priest walks around and around, censing the entire church and congregation with incense – and I have never seen a priest who didn’t look the picture of pure joy at this point.  Every verse of the Canon ends with the refrain, “Christ is risen from the dead!” and the paschal hymn is sung innumerable times:  “Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and to those in the tombs bestowing life.”  You have to hear it.  It’s like a great roar of defiance at death, and although at this point most of us are dropping from exhaustion – you actually do revive when singing this hymn.

After the service, the priest will bless food that people have brought from home – specially prepared food, kielbasa and butter and horseradish and eggs, all dyed a deep red – and everyone sits down in the parish hall to feast.  Yes, at four in the morning.  This is a time to celebrate!  Christ is risen from the dead!

People have commented, off and on, about how interesting my writing is – at this point, my writing feels wooden.  There is simply no good way to describe this Feast of Feasts, the joy, the energy, the sheer life force.  Orthodox churches are filled to overflowing, literally, for this Feast.  You have to see it, you have to be there.

And yes – to answer the first prompt at the very beginning of this post, I do believe it.  It is the center of my life.  “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” the Apostle Paul writes to the Jews (Hebrews 10:31), and although in this passage the context is one of fear and judgment, there is another meaning to the word “terrible”:  awe-inspiring, jaw-dropping astonishment, the kind that makes you look around to make sure that the encounter isn’t meant for someone else because, you know, what would God want with me?!

When that happens, faith is no longer necessary.  You know.

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