Tuesday, December 23, 2008

an invitation

I'm back blogging (for now). If anyone notices this and has enough interest, you can find me over at ΠΡΩΪ.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

crossing . . .

. . . the Jordan? the Bosporus? or just plain crossing? (We do a lot of that.) Anyway, here are some pics of the main event.

Did I mention the two things I was most looking forward to? Spitting at the Devil (no pic, unfortunately) and going barefoot in church. OK, maybe there were other things I was looking forward to more, but they're both very cool elements of the service. My understanding is that, like Muslims, Christians used to take off their shoes for worship, harking back to Moses at the burning bush. We have some Ethiopians who still do it regularly, but now that the norm has shifted, for most of us this is the one opportunity.
The service starts in the back of the nave (technically, in the narthex, but ours is too small and not positioned right). The point is that you start out on the doorstep, and as the service progresses, you enter into the rest of the body. Godfather Jim is to my right, without his cigar but still looking very much the part. Jenna looks pretty happy, doesn't she? Poor kid has no idea what's coming.
After the questioning and the exorcism (yeah, that's right), we proceed to the middle of the nave where the font awaits. Since I'd already been baptized as a heretic, I was received by chrismation and confession only. Along with Ian and Jenna, there was one other baby baptized on this particular occasion. They have a nice, silver font for babies, but Ian's a little beyond that, so they broke out the cattle trough. Godmother Laura's ready to help out. Jenna still has no clue.
There's a lot of oil spilled in this service. We haven't even got to the chrismations yet, but before the baptisms, both the water and the catechumens are anointed, so that the whole process may be for their healing both physical and spiritual. Remember, this part is about restoring the fallen human back to the life we had in the Garden. Chrismation will carry us beyond to what God always intended for mankind--infusion with the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Ian got a little ahead of the game. They were still trying to get him to kneel, and he was already putting his head in the water. Fr. Gregory made sure the rest of him got wet, as he said the appropriate words.
Now, I think she's beginning to figure it out. Maybe watching Big Brother go through it first helped to drive home the point.
Yep--we immerse babies too. Three times, no less.
As the only adult entering in this service, I wrapped up my confession (given earlier to Fr. Gregory) by receiving absolution.
Jenna seems to have recovered OK by this point. She's always loved playing with the cross around my neck--now she gets one of her own.
As, of course, does Ian. His is very cool and manly looking, with Longinus's lance and a skull at the bottom. (This is Traditional iconography; the Aramaic name for the hill on which Jesus was crucified is Golgoltha--"the skull.") Good call by the Godparents!
Part of the chrismation involves tonsuring. In the ancient Near East, slaves wore a distinctive haircut to show that they belonged to their master. In the Torah, the Israelites were instructed to shave their heads when they fulfilled a vow to the Lord. Most Westerners are probably familiar with the monk's tonsure--this is essentially the same idea, though it's made somewhat symbolic by cutting off so little hair that it can hardly be noticed. Still, the point is that even our physical appearance should reflect that we belong to Christ.
And for the final sacrament of the morning (after baptism, chrismation, and confession), of course we all took communion for the first time. Jenna, of course, is a pro at taking food from a spoon and letting others wipe her face.
With a little practice, Ian didn't do so bad either.
So there you have it. I've already given my reflections on the day's events; now you get a glimpse of what it looked like. Again, feel free to post comments, questions, whatever. I'll respond where necessary, but this is it for new posts. Of course, the doorstep is still there for anyone who wants to come knocking.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

that I may dwell in the house of the Lord

One thing have I asked of the Lord, this will I seek after: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, that I may behold the delight of the Lord, and that I may visit His holy temple (Ps 26, LXX).
The time has come to leave the doorstep. I started this blog two years ago, before I was a catechumen, to write about my life in between. By that point, I knew where I wanted to be. (Remember, I had been investigating Orthodoxy for two years already.) But I still had important lessons to learn in patience, faith, and humility, before I could move any further. I still have a long way to go in those and many other areas; the journey, of course, never ends. But now I enter a new phase, properly within the nave--the ark--of the Church, where the real work begins.

For those who aren't familiar, the metaphor of this blog's title is based on Traditional Church architecture. As you enter, you come first to the narthex--the porch, or entrance, or vestibule. Various services are meant to be observed here--parts of memorial and funeral services, I believe, and most notably for our purposes, the beginning of baptism and chrismation, by which someone formally enters the Church. Also, it was traditionally where the non-Orthodox would stand if they were allowed to be present at all in a service. This restriction is still observed in some monasteries, but for the most part Orthodox parish practice accepts that the basic rituals of Christianity are no longer so foreign to outsiders that their presence in the service will cause more harm than good.

Catechumens fell somewhere in the middle. They were allowed to enter the nave--the main room--for most services, but before the Eucharistic portion of the Divine Liturgy, they would be dismissed. Inspired by lines from a psalm about choosing to stand on the doorstep of God's Temple, I identified my own situation with that of a beginning inquirer, peering in from the narthex, to catch a blessed glimpse of God's grace at work in his Church. Even after becoming a catechumen, the metaphor still worked, since I was not yet all the way inside. Now that I am inside (again, more beginning than culmination), a good deal changes. I am a convert to Orthodoxy, which I suppose has its distinctive features, but more to the point, I am an Orthodox Christian, plain and simple. As the journey moves forward, the earlier metaphor no longer applies.

One solution, I suppose, would be simply to change the name of the blog. Perhaps better, I could end this blog and start another. And it may be that, in time, I will blog again. But for now, I think it makes sense to wrap things up. The personal need I felt to justify my path, to argue my points, to respond to critics, has mostly dried up. What remains I think is best ignored. For me, such things too easily stand in for real life in whatever I'm supposed to be doing here and now. I need to learn silence, before I'll ever have anything truly worthwhile to say.

What is here, warts and all, may still be of benefit to someone; for that reason, I don't think I'll take it down anytime soon. I also plan to post something in the way of pictures from the chrismation service, when I get a chance. It will still be possible to post comments, and from time to time I may respond to those who do. Otherwise, I'll be about the business of being human. Lord willing, we'll all find some success at it in whatever life brings us.

Monday, June 16, 2008

and I thank my dear wife as well

Julie deserves such heartfelt thanks for her part in all this. Considering that she doesn't even believe in Orthodoxy, her cooperation with allowing me to convert, the kids to get baptized with me, helping to get their outfits, get them ready, dealing with a sleep-deprived baby, humoring Ian by playing church after we got home, coming to services with me in the first place, hosting the in-laws for another visit, coordinating a get-together in honor of the occasion, and the host of other things that I don't remember or notice in the first place, are far above and beyond the call of duty.

I literally could not ask for a better partner and friend. Poor sinner that I am, I don't even deserve the one I have. I love you!

I thank Thee, O Lord my God . . .

. . . that Thou hast not rejected me, a sinner, but hast granted me to be a communicant of Thy holy Things. I thank Thee that Thou hast granted me, unworthy as I am, to partake of Thy pure and heavenly Gifts.
--Thanksgiving after Holy Communion

If there's ever anything to be said for preparing in advance, it's this: When it came to the point yesterday, I almost missed what happened. I don't mean that I didn't get there in time or anything. I mean, it's all kind of a blur in my memory. I don't remember feeling so much this way at our wedding, but I think Julie did. The first thing she needed to do when we got home from our honeymoon was look at the pictures and video, because going through the event itself, it was so hard to take in what was actually going on. In this case, I was so preoccupied with making sure the kids got through everything, that I didn't have much time to contemplate the significance of what was happening. If I had come expecting just to focus all my attention on the liturgy, I would have been sorely disappointed. That's where the days and weeks (years, even) of preparation were a true Godsend.

Actually, the comparison with a wedding is kind of apropos--and not my idea, either. Julie asked me last night if I felt any different after being chrismated. I didn't particularly, and she said it's probably like when people ask at a wedding if you feel married. After thinking a bit, I did remark that it felt somewhat different being in the service, knowing it was going to end with actual communion, vs. so many times when I've been in a service and known it was off-limits. I guess, to stretch the comparison into possible sacrilege, it's kind of like a wedding when you've preserved your virginity until marriage.

As was more or less expected, Jenna didn't exactly cooperate on her sleep schedule. The past few days she's been sleeping until about 6:00. In general, that's better than what she was doing, getting up around 5:00, but this time it might have worked better if she'd got up earlier; she might have been ready to take some kind of a nap before we left. As it was, she was just about ready for a nap but didn't sleep in the car. She was kind of irritable when we arrived, and grumbled until I held her instead of our Godparents. (Does having the same Godparents make us brother and sister?) Even then, she still did her fair share of screeching, grunting, and wriggling. She was also kicking Ian in the head through quite a bit of it, but he seemed to appreciate the distraction, so I didn't intervene too much. The water was a shock to her, but she recovered quickly enough. (At least she was awake--poor Aidan was practically asleep until he hit the water.) After the chrismations were over, and we got her dressed, Julie took her out in the car to nap until it was time for communion.

Ian was looking forward to getting baptized and quite the trooper in the event. He cooperated with two anointings, getting breathed and blown on by Fr. Gregory, a public haircut, and of course the baptism itself. They were trying to get him to kneel down after he got in the water, and he just went ahead and stuck his head in. Fr. Gregory went with it, said the right words, splashed some water to get his back wet, and the thing was done. He was hungry after getting dressed downstairs, so since kids aren't absolutely required to fast, we let him have a quarter of a bagel. We knew we were supposed to get back up in the service for the procession at a certain point, and it came while he was still eating. He had to drop everything, and we ran upstairs, joined the procession already in progress (Orthodox conga line?), then went back down afterward so he could finish his snack, and got back up for the homily and the rest of the service. Communion went off without a hitch, though I was so preoccupied with making sure Jenna got through it OK, that I'm pretty sure I forgot to cross my arms after handing her to Laura. Jim shepherded Ian through the process, who was excited that he got to grab bread out of the basket and share some with Grandpa and Grandma.

Possibly the most poignant moment--because I didn't have to do anything with either of the kids and could actually take in what was going on--was the prayer for the catechumens, when for the first time in a year and a half, I didn't go up. I just stood there and prayed with all my heart for the catechumens who will soon follow.

I'll probably post some pics when they're available.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Behold, I approach the Divine Communion . . .

O Creator, let me not be burnt by communicating,
For Thou art Fire, consuming the unworthy.
But, rather, purify me of all impurity.
--St. Symeon Metaphrastes

Friday, June 13, 2008

getting ready

Less than 40 hours to go! Today I gave my confession--the leave-me-hangin' sacrament. Baptism and chrismation are the entrance into all the other sacraments of the Church (simply because they're the entrance into the Church). But Orthodox do everything at once--baptism, chrismation, first communion. Rather than stop the service so the newly illumined can give their lifetime confession before communion, the hard part is done in advance. All but the absolution, that is. That step waits until after chrismation.

Julie asked, who gives you absolution? God, naturally. Then aren't you already absolved? Well, this is the part where our heads start hurting. Of course, God is eternal. He's not waiting around to forgive us when it's convenient scheduling. But he's given us the sacraments by which these things are manifested in time. And as he gave the apostles the keys to the kingdom, the Church is entrusted with binding and loosing sins. For God, forgiveness happens in the eternal present. For us time-bound mortals, it plays out in some kind of sequence. Even then, there's a lot that we can only struggle to grasp. I've heard that there's a reason processions in church tend to go counter-clockwise. It shows how Christ's resurrection reversed the order of fallen nature. Similarly, they say some icons of his baptism depict the Jordan flowing backward. (What's more, in some places at the Theophany blessing of waterways, the miracle is repeated.) We have to be open-minded when it comes to God's working in time. He can answer our prayers before they're asked; sometimes in the New Testament we see people baptized before they receive the Spirit, sometimes after. I passed through the water 20 years ago; this Sunday I will be born into the Church.

Ian had one more go at putting his face in the water this evening at the pool. I think he'll do OK on Sunday. We've got the kids' clothes, I have the service book to review, and my parents are coming into town tomorrow. Ian and I have one more service to attend before the big day. Tomorrow is a memorial Saturday, when we pray for those who have reposed before us. We'll attend matins and hopefully the first part of divine liturgy. This last time, after the prayer for the catechumens, it will be appropriate for us to leave. (Holy Cross doesn't recite the ancient dismissal of the catechumens, nor do most parishes actually require that catechumens or anyone else leave the service; but the division is still there between the liturgy of the catechumens and the liturgy of the faithful.) Mostly, we're doing it that way so we can get home and see my parents when they arrive, but it still seems fitting.

Fr. Gregory posted an announcement today about the weekend's services. In Orthodoxy, we do know how to prepare.

Saturday, June 07, 2008


We're back from vacation. We didn't plan very far ahead this year. A few weeks ago, we decided to find something through Government Employee Travel Opportunities--a great program, BTW, which we heartily recommend to anyone who's eligible (any kind of government employee, and you can extend the program to your families as well). We wanted to keep it fairly local, so as not to burn too much gas on the way there and back, so returned to Massanutten, about three hours away in VA. (We stayed there two years ago, the first time we tried this program.) It's a nice resort, and we knew the sleeping arrangements would suit our kids' needs. A major drawback is that you have to pay for just about anything you want to do there. Last year, we went to Williamsburg, and the resort we stayed at there had more stuff included in the price--miniature golf, arcades, etc. Of course, those were two of the activities Ian was really looking forward to, so we had to limit his fun. We did the timeshare "tour" (read: sales pitch) again, so we could afford the water park. They have a big indoor/outdoor water park--fun, but pricey. This year Ian was just tall enough to do everything, which meant we had to pay full price for him. The $100 we got for enduring the three-hour tour (not nearly as much fun as Gilligan's Island would lead you to believe) didn't quite cover the admission fee for one day. At least we maximized what we got out of it. We got there when they opened, and aside from a couple of breaks for meals, Julie and Ian were there pretty much the whole day. I stayed in the condo with Jenna for her second nap, which was fine with me.

Anyway, it was a very relaxing time. I didn't bring a lot of reading material, so I could focus more on the kids and on spiritual preparation for chrismation. I'll give my confession this week, so I had some soul-searching to do for that. I also wanted to make sure I kept a regular prayer rule throughout the vacation, when a lot of other routine was out the window. I didn't attend a service on Sunday, but I did make it to vespers for the Ascension. There appear to be three Orthodox parishes, all about an hour's drive from the resort. The Russian parish wasn't having a service because the priest was away; that left a Greek parish and a Ukrainian. I heard back first from the Ukrainian priest, and it seemed more likely to be an English service.

It was a beautiful drive down and back, alongside the mountains. A strong storm came through during the service, which left fog visibly resting on the slopes as I returned. Julie said it hit the resort earlier in the evening, but we got it toward the end. The power went out at the very moment that the service ended. (I thought they were just very prompt about turning out the lights at the end, until someone commented on it in the narthex.) The parish has been there about ten years. The priest and his wife are Carpatho-Rusyn and found the Ukrainian bishop to be the most cooperative about starting a new parish for non-Greeks in the area. I had a good talk with both of them after the service. I also met someone who lives in Harrisonburg, up by the resort. I think it's bad to have to travel 35 min. each way to church; they've got to run closer to an hour each way! With gas prices climbing, I don't want to think about it . . .

The service was very refreshing and a great way to keep me going through the week. In my spare time, I also worked on learning how to crochet. I've been thinking for some time about trying to learn some kind of hand craft. It comes up a lot in ascetic literature, not only as a source of income for the desert fathers, but more importantly to keep productive and awake while praying. For my circumstances, none of the more traditionally "manly" crafts seems to make much sense. I don't have the kind of work space for serious woodworking or anything like that. Even basket weaving seems to require some room to spread out, and it's not very portable. Whittling might be an option, but it's pretty much an outdoor activity (and it doesn't look like I'm going to have much of a porch for it any time soon). So, for compact, portable, do-almost-anywhere crafts, it's hard to beat crocheting. Even knitting requires a bit more equipment and elbow-room. I have no idea yet what I'd make with it--right now, my interest is more in the activity than the end product. I have one skein of yarn (black, of course--there has to be something masculine about it) and one hook to start. This week I muddled my way through some written instructions. Hopefully I can get some input soon from someone who actually knows what they're doing, before I establish too many bad habits. (I know both my mom and my Godmother crochet, so help is there.)

I guess those are the highlights from my standpoint. We went some places, saw some stuff, did some things. Ian said constantly how much he liked being on vacation. He also said he liked being home when we got back today, so it seems like a good balance. Jenna found the condo to be suitable for rolling, but it seemed like most of our outings involved harder surfaces than she really cared for. She might have enjoyed eating gravel, if I hadn't intervened. She started freaking out a few minutes from home. Julie sang "Twinkle Twinkle" over and over (backed up by Ian), until she was gasping for air and everyone was laughing. Even with that, it took Jenna quite a while to calm down, but we made it, safe and sound.

Oh, and one nice thing. Julie was rear-ended a couple of weeks back, and to keep a long story short, we couldn't get the car into the shop for repairs until this week. We were able to drop it on Saturday, it was fixed by Friday, and we can pick it up any time now. Part of the week's rental is covered by insurance, so at minimal cost we got to spare the extra wear on our own car and drive someone else's. If we play our cards right, we'll even get to drive separately to church tomorrow, so I can get in one more service before the chrismation. Woo hoo!