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“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!

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“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!”

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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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Let’s see if I can do any better at this than I have in the past two months.  To be fair, I did spend November writing a novel, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo, in case you’ve ever seen the reference and not known what that was about).  And December is, well, December.  Everybody’s busy in December.  Even Scrooge – gotta close out the books for the year, you know.

The theme for this month’s National Blog Post Month (NaBloPoMo) is Energy, and I’m all worn out just thinking about it.  However, on the theory that a new year means a new start, I’m willing to take a new shot at this.  So, the first topic of the month:

From where do you draw your energy?”

It depends on the task at hand.  If I’m cleaning house, for example, I draw my energy from doing the worst task first.  I can certainly see the rationale behind leaving it for last – you could get so wiped out from doing the worst first that you’d have no energy left over for everything else – but for me, getting that out of my hair makes everything else seem like such a breeze that I get it all done.  Leaving the worst for last would sap my energy just thinking about it.

If it’s anything to do with desk work, or office work – organizing, paying bills, keeping track of finances – that in itself gives me an energy boost.  I can’t believe what a born Office Worker I am; most people I know hate, loathe, and despise office work, and will do anything to get out of it.  So why is it so difficult for me to find a volunteer job doing office work?  Any time I hear of volunteer opportunities, they’re looking for people to spend time with other people, a guaranteed energy drain for me.  (Can you spell “introvert”?)  Give me a pile of envelopes to stuff or to label, and I’m happy for the rest of the week.

However, it’s an unfortunate fact of life that we can’t spend our time doing everything that comes naturally to us.  Those puzzling and bizarre people called extroverts do, eventually, have to sit down and do some office work, unless they can find someone to pay the bills for them.  And those of us who thrive on solitude, peace, and quiet eventually do have to have something to do with our fellowman.  Or, as Linus (I think) once put it, “I love Mankind, it’s people I can’t stand!”

When there’s no other choice but to interact with flesh and blood – that’s when my religion is most helpful.  Orthodoxy not only encourages us to see others as icons of Christ, it actually shows us that that’s the case – during every service, the priest or deacon censes the people in front of him.  Since you only cense holy things or holy people, his doing so illustrates sharply that each of us standing before him is an image of God Himself.  Take that awareness out into the world, and people become…not so pesky.  More of an opportunity to serve Christ.

I’m aware, of course, that most religions see service to mankind as a necessary part of their practice.  But there’s a huge difference, for me anyway, between being exhorted to do so and being helped to do so. Having somebody tell me, “Go forth and serve the Lord” tells me that I’m supposed to expend most of my precious energy on somebody who will not only not appreciate the enormous effort I have to put into meeting his needs, but will gladly leach all the energy out of me altogether.  Being shown that I and all the others around me are icons of God illustrates to me why they are worth the effort and expenditure of my energy.

And that gives me all the energy I need to do it.

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This one’s from Plinky (I didn’t care for the NaBloPoMo prompt for today):  “Describe your perfect Sunday morning.”

Perfect?  That covers a lot of ground, but here goes:

I wake up early, no later than 6:00 a.m. and preferably around 5:00.  Say some prayers, start pulling my thoughts together for the day.  My husband gets up shortly after, and makes coffee.  Note to Orthodox friends:  I’m painfully aware that I shouldn’t be drinking coffee before receiving Communion, but I had such a struggle to get my husband to accept that I should be leaving the house without eating breakfast that several priests said I should just go ahead and have coffee with him.

We share a cup of coffee, then he makes his breakfast while I get ready for church.  Outside, it’s Autumn, and the weather is cool  and wet – not a downpour, but a steady shower.  (Remember, we’re talking Perfect.)  In a Perfect scenario, I actually get out of the house by 8:00 a.m.; realistically, it’s usually closer to 8:30, but I always try to get out by 8:00, and count my blessings if I’m out by 8:15.

It’s a ninety-minute drive to church.  Other people in my neighborhood can get there in an hour, but they take the highway and speed like demons.  I like to take a more direct route that involves back roads; it takes me longer, but I’m happy not to get to church in a frazzled state, having cursed out All Those Other Crazy Drivers, which is no way to go to church, anyway.

Nowadays it sounds so sanctimonious to say, “I go to church,” like you’re trying to convince people that you’re somehow better than those who sleep in or go for a jog or, I don’t know, get an early start on getting plastered.  “Better” has nothing to do with it.  Being pious has nothing to do with it.  Church is so many things to me:  a place where I can be my truest self, a place where I can meet like-minded people, a place where I can sing truly beautiful music – most of all, a place to encounter God.

My Perfect Sunday Morning would include my husband, but he refuses to drive in Massachusetts, even though, taking the route I take, we’re only in Massachusetts for about five miles of the drive, if that.  I will admit that it’s the scariest part of the drive, since it involves going around a traffic circle under a highway, and people in New England aren’t too good about traffic circles – they always try to grab the right of way from the people in the circle, who actually do have the right of way.  I find that using turn signals throws them long enough for me to exit safely; they aren’t too big on turn signals, either.

So when I visit my little Russian congregation, I go by myself.  The music is already Perfect, since the entire Liturgy is sung and I don’t have to worry about some of the Protestant hymns that just grate on my ears (and the hymns used in the American Catholic Church are even worse.  Beatles’ songs?!  Really?!).  We use arrangements either from the Octoechos, the Eight-Tone cycle of the Orthodox Church that’s akin to Gregorian chant, or we use compositions by classical composers like Bortniansky, Tchaikovsky, Kastalsky, Chesnokov (no Rachmaninoff, though I live in hope); there is a wonderful Lord’s Prayer by Stravinsky, of all people, and I’d love to sing that sometime.

After worship, there’s a social hour.  It always involves food, and some of the meals can be quite elaborate, and very Russian; but there are also American dishes, since mine is primarily a convert parish.  Most fun of all is getting to sit down and talk to people, though even if people are engaged in conversation that doesn’t include me, I can just sit and eat and listen in – the tables are long, refectory-style tables, not round tables that are used in some other parishes.

Finally, replete with good food, good conversation, and a sense of being refreshed and renewed to face the coming week, I get back into my car for the long drive home.  In an absolutely Perfect world, the rain would keep all the Sunday shoppers home, so that my commute would be relatively quiet and peaceful; but I find that shoppers are out, regardless of the weather.  The worst aspect of the commute is that there are only two routes to church:  one is along a five-mile “shoppers’ paradise,” with the attendant horrible traffic, and the other is along a stretch of highway, being surrounded by cars speeding at 80 mph or better (around 135-140 kph), all making lightning lane switches at that insane rate of speed – there is no third route, that I’m aware of.  But once I’m past that ten-mile stretch of stop and go, I’m back on my quiet country road, on my way home again.

PS:  My husband informs me that if my parish were located in New Hampshire or Maine, he would come with me.  So I don’t make this commute every week; every other week, I accompany him to a Greek parish.  This does not fit my Perfect-Sunday scenario, so I won’t go into it here.

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Requiem Mass

Note to Catholics everywhere:  This is not an anti-Catholic rant.  What it is, is reflections on the Novus Ordo, the “new” Mass enacted by Vatican II, the Mass that turned the entire Catholic Church on its head and led to the current state of chaos in that body.

In a recent post (“A Cloud of Witnesses”), I blogged about Things Unseen, and a large part of that post was the atmosphere of Mass in a Catholic church when I was growing up.  Okay, it’s true, you couldn’t really understand a word of it unless you understood Latin; but that’s what Missals were for.  Every Catholic I knew (and being from a large family and a Catholic school, I knew a lot of Catholics) had at least a Sunday Missal, and we schoolchildren were encouraged to have Daily Missals – and many of us did, me included.  You could follow along with the prayers, and they were reverent prayers, addressed to God in His glory and majesty.  If they were lacking in a certain understanding of God as a loving Father, well, that reflected much of the culture of the times.  Earthly fathers showed their love by providing for their families.  You wanted love, you went to Mom.

Vatican II – the Second Ecumenical Vatican Council – was supposed to correct certain…I don’t know how to describe them.  “Misunderstandings” doesn’t seem right, since nobody really misunderstood the Mass.  “Abuses” is definitely not what needed correcting; those have occurred since Vatican II.  “Misperceptions,” perhaps?  Such as the lack of understanding of God’s love for us?  One of the visions for Vatican II, I have come to understand, was a hope that the Mass could be reformed in such a way as to appeal to Protestants.  Pope John XXIII (that’s Twenty-Third, for you Roman-numeral-challenged folks), himself full of the love of God, hoped for a second Pentecost.  I’m not sure he lived even to see the Council convened; he certainly did not live to see its end, nor any of the abuses that took place because of it.

And the first abuse was the abandonment of the Latin Mass.  I’m currently reading Vatican, by Malachi Martin, and was surprised to learn that the abolishment of the Mass in Latin was specifically prohibited in the Vatican II documents.  We were told that it was the Latin Mass that had been prohibited.  The Latin Mass was a thing of great beauty, the way it soared to the very rafters of a church.  You felt the presence of God and His heavenly host.  With the abolishing of the Latin Mass, Gregorian chant was not far behind; the criticism was that it was so “difficult” to sing English to Gregorian chant.  Listen, I’m a musician.  If you can adapt Byzantine chant to English, Gregorian is a snap.

In Vatican, you can find the origins of expressions such as the “people of God,” and “celebration” (instead of “sacrifice”) of the Mass, and the changing of the words of institution at the Consecration that completely water down what’s gong on at that moment.  And you can find a description of the deliberate destabilization of the entire Catholic Church, beginning with “reforms” such as vernacular Masses and the substitution of very Protestant-sounding hymns (and in some cases, actual Protestant hymns) for the beauty of Gregorian chant.

What, I wonder, was actually wrong with that beauty?  Beauty is from God.  The Garden of Eden was beautiful.  Paradise was beautiful.  God is described in the Bible as being so beautiful that no one can see Him and live.  If every aspect of our entire lives should reflect some portion of that Beauty, certainly our worship should, first and foremost.

Instead, you have the “people of God” singing inane ditties about “Jesus” being our “Friend,” strumming “folksy” instruments and waving their arms in the air.  You have the interruption of the Mass almost at its high point for a pointless “handshake of peace,” that usually devolved into a meet-and-greet either of people you have never seen before and will never see again, or of people you see every blessed week (if not day) and have no need to establish “peace” with.  In some of the more shocking abuses, you can find “liturgical dancing,” or Masses specifically constructed to protest certain aspects of Catholic teaching.  In the most extreme case, you can find people not even worshipping God; instead they worship “Sophia,” apparently a “female manifestation of God” (as is apparent from the newsletters I get from the nuns I had in high school.  They get more and more bizarre).

In short, what you have is the “people of God” celebrating themselves as the People of God, completely oblivious of the presence of God; as one German priest once put it to me, as if God could say to them, “Just keep going without Me for a little while,” and nobody would even notice that He had taken off.  What’s the point of the Mass, if not God?  You might as well just skip to the coffee hour.

Most painful of all, for my generation, is the awareness that there are now several generations of Catholics who have no idea of how different it was, how different it can be.  One Orthodox priest wrote of being approached after a Divine Liturgy by a couple who introduced themselves as visiting Catholics, and wanted to know if the Orthodox Church ever “celebrated” the “traditional” guitar Mass!  People!  There is nothing traditional about guitar Masses!!!

Yesterday was the anniversary of the death of my mother-in-law.  A faithful Catholic, she made no bones of her disdain for the new music, but did her best to see “both sides” of the matter; she was a great one for seeing both sides of a question (which sometimes left you wondering which end was Up, but that’s another matter).  When she died, I approached her parish priest to ask if we could possibly have some music by Bach, which she loved dearly, and was told, No, the Mass was For The People.  And we suffered through all the empty non-music she so deeply abhorred.

My husband told me, over supper, that he had considered slipping over to the local Catholic parish to attend Mass for his mother.  Two problems with that:  One, apparently Catholics don’t say prayers for the dead anymore.  On the anniversary of his father’s death, he had requested that a Mass be said for his father, and was floored to find that his father’s name wasn’t even mentioned.  The other, and much bigger, problem was that, as my husband put it, “I knew I would have been counting the seconds till it was over.  The Mass is just intolerable, the way it is.”  This is someone who once considered becoming a priest.

A lot of agendas went into the creation of the “new Mass,” but it’s becoming more and more apparent that not a lot of thought went into it, or heart; and nothing whatsoever of prayer.  And I’m not sure that that prayerful tone, or that beauty, can ever be recovered.

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The NaBloPoMo Theme of the Month has been “Eyes” – all the questions asked have had to do with seeing.  There have been a couple I’ve chosen to skip, either because my response would be too personal or because I couldn’t think of a good response (“Who is someone you wish you could see again” would take at least a year’s worth of blog posts).  But I’d like to keep with the theme, at least Monday to Friday – weekends are for free-writing – so in keeping with Things You See…well…what about Things You Don’t See?

From the time I was a small child, I loved going to church.  Catholic churches tend to be dark, quiet places, and in my youth, there was usually a lingering smell of incense; the whole atmosphere was conducive to belief in the Unseen Presence of God.  My mother and her sister, both very pious Catholics, especially liked to attend the 6:00 a.m. Sunday Mass; it took care of their religious Sunday obligation, and left them time for a cup of coffee and a roll before beginning the round of familial Sunday obligations, like getting the kids out to the Children’s Mass on time.  During the school year, I had to be at the Children’s Mass, but in the summertime, I was occasionally allowed to accompany my mother and aunt to the 6:00 a.m. Mass.

As I grew older, I began to experience something a little weird.  I mean, really, six o’clock in the morning – not a lot of people were in church, usually eight to ten early birds, people who had to work, like cops and nurses, and my mother and her sister.  And our parish church was big; it had been designed to hold the entire school, and this was at a time when a family of four or five children was considered a decent size.  When I started school, there were forty children in my classroom, and about the same number in the other first-grade class; by the time I finished, there were sixty in my room, sixty-one in the other eighth grade, and seventy in my brother’s first-grade classroom.  So, to accommodate all those kids, and their parents, the space had to be sizable, and the Masses numerous; they started at 6:00 and ran hourly until 12:15 p.m.

 

All that so you get an idea of just how big this place was, and it was one of the smaller churches in the Diocese of Brooklyn.  During 6:00 a.m. Mass, it felt cavernous.  The voices of the priest and altar boy echoed, and back then, those were the only voices that were heard; the rest of us either followed along in our Missals (encouraged) or said the Rosary (grudgingly permitted – at least it was praying).  But along about the Offertory, there was a change in the atmosphere:  somehow it felt as if the whole place had just filled up, was packed to the rafters, in fact.  I could never account for it, but you just knew there were whole hosts of unseen beings in attendance.  And it stayed that way right through Communion; once everyone had received Communion, the place emptied out again of all but the people who had been there originally, the people you could see.  It was a wonderful awareness of the ranks of angels and saints, and of long-gone parishioners who had built the place and had come to see it again and to worship in the space their prayers had built.

I never drifted away from the Catholic Church.  I stayed with it when my contemporaries were leaving in droves because, you know, “you can find God at the beach as well as at church” (no, you really can’t).  I was married in the Church, and we both attended church faithfully; our daughter was baptized in the Catholic Church, even though it was already feeling like a foreign country.  But one hot Sunday in July, standing with my husband and our year-old baby, I knew I had come to the end; there was nothing recognizable about the Church anymore, nothing beautiful, nothing of God.  I had to leave.

It took fourteen years for me to find my way to Orthodoxy, and at first it felt completely foreign, probably owing to its being a Greek parish – Greeks are fanatic about hanging onto the Greek language and customs – but eventually, as I learned more and more about the theology, I came to the startling realization that everything I had always believed about God was to be found in the Orthodox Church.  And I started to settle into it, even learning the Liturgy (in Greek, of course) well enough to become a cantor for weekday Liturgies.

One day in February I was in church for a major Feastday, the day when Jesus was brought to the Temple by His parents for His Mother’s forty-day purification (so in the Catholic Church it’s called the Purification, and in the Orthodox Church it’s called the Meeting of the Lord, since this is when two aged people, who had been promised they wouldn’t die until they saw the Messiah, met Him).  It was nasty weather, so as it turned out, all the stalwarts stayed home, and only the priest and I were there for Liturgy.  We began with reading the Matins prayers for the day – a service that can take anywhere from half an hour to an hour – and at the close of Matins, as is customary, I began to sing the Doxology.

And wham – the place filled to the rafters, with the “cloud of witnesses” St. Paul mentions in Hebrews (chapter 12, verse 1).  And I knew I was home.

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Yesterday’s NaBloPoMo prompt was, “Write about one object you see at this exact moment.”  I had a whole, really nice essay written about the view from my office window – then went to publish it, and somehow lost the whole thing.  Meanwhile, on another blog, I found this marvellous disquisition on one of the central facets of my faith:  the icon.  What follows is copied from the blog, Glory to God for All Things, by Father Stephen Freeman.  I recommend it most heartily.

The Scripture tells us that the “pure in heart shall see God.” I have always assumed that this describes a present event and not a promise about a distant life after death. We do not see God now, because our hearts are not pure. In the same manner, we do not see the reality of the world – because our hearts are darkened. I am increasingly convinced that the “literal” world that we see is distorted by our own self-deception. It is not a problem with creation itself – but the distortions of our own falsely created existence. 

What do you see when you see the world and how do you see it? I have written much about the secular character of our culture and its “literal” view of the world. The world is what you see and nothing more. Significant events take their significance from their own relation to other literal events. Much that passes for Christian theology or “thought” belongs to this world-view today. Thus those who concern themselves with “prophetic” events are constantly working to make a connection between the words of Scripture and the “literal” events of today’s news. The coming of Christ is seen by them as an event that will fit within the headlines of the paper – and even fantasize about the difficulties presented to mainstream media when the event of a “literal rapture” occurs, and a significant portion of the population goes missing. It is a way to see the world – not significantly different than how any non-believer sees the world – and – I would suggest – deadly dull and wrong.

There are other ways to see the world. The “other way” with which I am most familiar is the world as icon. Of painted icons we say they are “windows to heaven.” Though no more than wood and paint, faithful believers find them to be something which points to something yet more – they both point to and make present here.

The house in which I live has a marvelous feature. The living room – dining room (more or less one large room together) has one entire wall as floor-to-ceiling windows. In addition, the living room is cantilevered so that parts of two additional walls consist of windows as well. The effect is that the main living space of my home constantly includes the outdoors. In the Autumn the room is suffused with golden light from the leaves of the many trees that overlook the rear of our house. In the Spring and Summer, the room takes on a radiance from the many trees and flowers. Even in winter as the room looks out over the naked wood of trees and offers views of neighboring streets and houses – the room remains transformed.

To say that something is a window is to recognize both its “literal” presence as well as its “iconic” function. It provides both wall to enclose and yet reaches out to include. The world, I believe, when properly seen, does the same. There are occasional views of certain aspects of the world that make the most hardened, literal heart pause and recognize that something transcendent, or something which certainly hints at the transcendent has come into view.

I well understand that there are people who do not believe in God. Oftentimes when they tell me about the God they don’t believe in, I have to say that I don’t believe in that God either. But I do not understand people who live in our world and do not wonder whether there is a God – whether the beauty that refuses to disappear, despite our best efforts – is not reflective of some greater Beauty that refuses to utterly hide Himself.

My children (now adult) laugh at me for once having scolded them about “fairy circles.” We were walking in the woods in Durham, N.C. My oldest girl was 8, her sister between 5 and 6. We came on a clearing with a beautiful circle of mushrooms. “It’s a fairy circle!” I exclaimed. Despite late night readings of Tolkien and Lewis, both of them laughed at me and said, “Papa!” in their most disapproving, skeptical voices. My scolding was that they did not at least pause to wonder.

I do not believe in fairy circles, nor did I expect my children to. But I do wonder (and I still pray that my children do and often). I wonder because I believe the world to be iconic – a window that reveals more than a first glimpse. It reveals a beauty and a vastness that stretches beyond the literal. The patriarch Jacob once fell asleep. He dreamed of a ladder reaching up to heaven and saw angels going up and down the ladder. His response was iconic: “Surely the Lord is in this place and I knew it not! How dreadful is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven!”

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Who in your world is made of sugar and spice and everything nice?”

Not very many people, that’s for sure.  Most people I know are made of lemonade:  tart enough to make your mouth pucker, but not too tart to keep around.  And very refreshing, as lemonade is supposed to be.  My own dearly beloved sister, who would have been a candidate for Sugar and Spice thirty years ago, has ripened into…let’s see…”gourmet lemonade,” and I love her all the more for it.

I don’t generally like overly sweet people, anyway, especially not the women with soft, little-girl voices and an attitude of, “I don’t need sugar in my coffee ’cause I’m sweet enough.”  Barf.  People like that are usually so sweet to your face because they’re busy sharpening their knives behind your back.

But a genuinely sweet person is like a refreshing breeze on a day in May, with just a hint of lily of the valley to make you wish this day would never end.  I only know one woman like that, and she’s a member of my church.  If I were just starting out as an Orthodox Christian, this is the woman I’d ask to be my godmother; her grasp on how to live a truly Orthodox life is that good.

She is not a Church Lady in any sense of the word, not one of those Dana Carvey caricatures.  Her whole manner is gentle, and when she smiles, the smile lights up her eyes, too.  When she stands in church, you can see that her whole attention is focused on the service, but she doesn’t have one of those phony pious expressions on her face; she’s really absorbed in what’s going on around her.  Her voice is soft, but pleasantly low, and only from the fine lines around her eyes can you tell that she has seen some hard times in life – and risen above them, by the help of God.

In her “day job,” she’s a nurse at an assisted-living facility.  I once said something to her about the difficulty of her job, and her face crinkled in a genuine smile:  “Oh, it’s not nearly as bad as it would be in a nursing home.  People in assisted living are still able to help physically with their care, so it’s really just making sure they have the medicines they need, and the rest is just companionship.”  Unfortunately for me, she’s only about ten years younger than I am (though she looks much younger than that, she has a grown daughter); if she were as young as she looks, so help me Hannah, I’d wangle my way into assisted living just for the pleasure of this woman’s company.

And the best thing of all about her is that she doesn’t read my blog, so I can talk about her without embarrassing her.  I am so glad I know her.  She reminds me not to dismiss sweet people out of hand.

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On Tuesday I attended a funeral.  In fact, the deceased was nobody I knew,  but when the priest sent out a parish-wide memo concerning this funeral, as a member of my church’s choir I felt I ought to show up – who knew how many other choir members would be there?  And this wasn’t just about a few feel-good hymns, either; in the Orthodox Church, we sing everything.  The priest sings his prayers, and the responses are sung back.

As it turned out, it was a good thing I went, since only two other singers showed up, one another choir member, and the other a young woman who can’t be in the choir right now because she has young children to keep track of.  (I look forward to her return in five or so years.)  As it also turned out, our presence was not necessary; family members who could sing were present, and requested to sing the responses.  And they did a wonderful job of it, too.

After the funeral, while everyone else walked over to the cemetery for the committal, I asked  my young friend if she would join me for lunch.  Between her children and my commute (50 miles, one way), we almost never get a chance for a  good, sit-down chat, and I wanted to grab the opportunity.  Apparently, so did she.  We met up at a watering hole not too far from church, ordered seafood, and dug in, both to our meals and to our chat.

She’s a lively little party, and I always enjoy talking to her.  As the conversation often does with young mothers, hers turned to her children, and to her son’s fear of receiving Communion, which had baffled her:  Orthodox children receive Communion from the time they are forty days old, and in this parish, at least, frequent Communion is the norm.  So why would a child suddenly become screaming-terrified of what had been a weekly occurrence?  And all she could get out of him was, “I’m scared.”

The priest was laid back about it.  “They all do it, at one time or another,” he told her.  “Give him time, he’ll get over it.”  (With five kids of his own, he should know.)  But she was sufficiently perturbed about her son’s fear to post her question to an online community for Orthodox mothers, and the response she received from one mother in particular has burned itself into my brain:  “Maybe he sees It for what It is,” wrote this mother of six.

She had me flummoxed, that’s for sure.  “What do you mean, what It is?” I asked my young friend, and she quoted from her online conversation:

“A Bowl of Fire.  A chalice full of flame.”

* * * * *

In the Orthodox Church, we take nothing for granted.  People who think we are indulging in Empty Ritual should talk to any of the older ladies of the parish, the ones who have time to answer, the ones who have lived this all their lives.  They can tell you the reason for everything we do (as can the priest), and it’s always theologically sound.  One of our common practices is to say pre-Communion prayers.  Yes, they were written by someone else; they express not just the personal feelings of the author, but the very depths of theology, of the essence of mankind’s relationship with his Creator.  We read them to school our own minds in the proper approach to God and to His mysteries, in particular, the Mystery of Communion.  And one of these prayers begins:

If thou desirest, O man, to eat the Body of the Master, approach with fear, lest thou be burnt; for It is fire. 

As any Christian knows, fire is all over the Bible.  Malachi speaks of a “refiner’s fire,” the Three Youths in the Book of Daniel experienced the fire meant to kill them as refreshing dew, and if you look it up in any good concordance, you can find an entire page of references to fire, both as a destroying agent and as a purifying agent.  In Orthodoxy, too, there is a particular miracle that takes place at Easter, the Holy Fire.  People who have been present for this miracle note that it is possible to put one’s hand into the flame, and it will not be burned; rather, it is a life-changing experience.  (Note that this miracle only takes place on Orthodox Easter, or Pascha, which falls, this year, on April 15, a week after everybody else’s.  Next year it takes place a month after everybody else’s.)

So no, this is not a Fire that would burn you if you consumed It, but It would, and does, burn away impurities of thought or action; It burns away sin.  Those of us who have been communing for decades understand this prayer in this sense when we read it, and when we approach the Chalice, we see only the mingled bread and wine, though we understand that through the action of the Holy Spirit, what is present is the actual Body and Blood of Christ, of which He spoke at the Last Supper.

But very small children see things differently.  Very small children have a purity that our Lord told us to emulate.  What if this very small boy, with the pure eyes of a child, did see Fire?  He would have no way of understanding that it’s not the same kind of fire that’s on his mother’s kitchen stove.  And he would be terrified to take this into his mouth.

Well, whatever it was about, it’s over, and he now communes regularly and happily.  I, on the other hand, will never see Communion in the same way again.

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