Tuesday, November 21, 2006

a few steps with the Theotokos

Well, I didn't exactly get to enter the holy of holies, but I did get a foot inside the door last night. Finally, after 2.5 years of "exploring" Orthodoxy, I am officially learning how to be Orthodox :-) It's kind of weird how it happens--there's no real ceremony to initiate you into the catechumenate. One DL you're just another person standing there in the congregation, the next you're going up to the front when they pray for the catechumens after the Liturgy of the Word. And until you actually convert, that's really all there is. I suppose it would feel differently if I literally had spent the last 2.5 years in the narthex and suddenly got to come into the nave for the first half of the service. But it still feels pretty good. I'm glad to have the Church praying for me, and I'm glad to be in actual fact what I've been in spirit for quite some time. I'm also glad Julie could be there with me. She said it didn't end up being as emotional an experience as she was expecting. I'm not even going to try to guess why that was, but I'll take it.

Perhaps the strangest part of the evening was when Fr. Gregory welcomed me at the end of the service during announcements. In my experience, he seems to mis-speak at some point during the announcements pretty consistently. (Sorry, Father--maybe it's just coincidence that I'm there whenever it happens.) In this case, he welcomed me to the diaconate instead of the catechumenate. Of course, there was quite a reaction from the group, and he corrected himself, but it does make one think. My dad was asked to be a deacon in the church I grew up in, before anyone realized that he wasn't a member yet, because he hadn't been baptized yet. Of course, being a deacon in that context is quite different from in the Orthodox Church, but it's still an interesting echo.

I should say that I took to heart the advice I received about thinking and praying before last night, about whether or not this was the right thing to do and the right time to do it. I won't say I got any clear sign like a voice from heaven or anything, but I did have one interesting experience over the weekend. The Society of Biblical Literature and American Academy of Religion joint annual meeting was in Washington this year, so I naturally had to go. My first day there was Saturday, and of course I made my way down to the book vendors at the earliest opportunity. I spent a couple of hours wandering through, looking over the offerings, checking discounts, trying to make a mental list of what I wanted to buy. It had been three years since the last time I attended, which was before I even started to think about Orthodoxy. This time the experience was unlike any time before.

As I walked around this huge convention hall (and when I say it took a couple of hours, that was only because I simply cruised by many of the booths with little more than a glance), filled with resources on the study of Bible and religion, all I could think of was the general emptiness. Sure, there was some good material there, but overwhelmingly, it was all dead, meaningless, wasteful. The selection hadn't changed, but I had, and I felt lost amid the noise and flash. Then I came to the small booth for St. Vladimir's Seminary Press--as far as I could tell, the one truly Orthodox publisher represented there--and when I walked in, it was relief. It's hard to explain. I'm sure the experience could be dissected into its perfectly reasonable, perfectly natural components, none of which carries any particular significance. I'm interested in Orthodoxy right now, so that's naturally the material that would interest me. St. Vladimir's is not as popular as many of the other publishers, so it wasn't so crowded or noisy. The list could go on. But what I felt that day was something much more profound. From the cacophony of this Western, post-Christian marketplace, I entered a little sanctuary where my soul could find peace. It summed up in a few minutes what my life has been for the past few years--wandering the maze of Western religion, with its pop culture, its heady academics, its buffet of beliefs and idiosyncratic readings, and finally coming to rest in this unassuming little place called Orthodoxy. Yes, on one level it looks like more of the same--it has its books, its choices, its marketing, and a booth much like any other--but Christ is there in a presence beyond words, and he brings rest and certainty and meaning.

The sessions of the conference were kind of a mixed bag. I went to some that were very good--some surprisingly so--and some that were more of the same meaningless braying. One that I found particularly interesting was on defining the canon of Scripture--basically, a collection of presenters who either have no particular respect for the Bible or seem downright angry with it (like the one who literally spat the word "Bible" throughout her talk), making their case that the books that got in really aren't that different from the books that didn't. (Current scholarship seems to be mostly about stating the obvious. Scholars gave up decades ago on the veracity of Scripture and any notion that its books were written by their attributed authors. Now they need a generation of prophets to tell them that a word like "pseudepigraphic" (falsely named) is no longer useful to distinguish a book like 1 Enoch from, say, Deuteronomy, which everyone knows wasn't written by Moses either.) Again, the arguments weren't especially new or noteworthy, but my reaction was. At various points in my journey I might have followed the speakers in their thinking, or got angry with them for their assault against Scripture. This time, I thought their agendas silly, but I didn't feel threatened by them. Theories will come and go, but the Church will always have the Bible and trust it as God's Word.

Anyway, by the time I left the conference, I was glad to be cutting it short so I could get to Holy Cross for evening DL and my entrance to the catechumenate. In fact, I left a little earlier than I needed to. There are more important things in life.

I had a good time after the service--good conversation, good food (I think I agree that Lenten chocolate cake is better than regular, but for that very reason I'm going to make sure we don't have any around the house), and a blessing from Father to top it all off. I knew I had to get some sleep when I climbed into bed around 11:15--3:45 comes early, after all--but my heart wasn't in it. The excitement was still high, and I didn't really want the evening to end. No service inside this morning, but I'm sitting here on the doorstep thinking about the Theotokos, who got to live in the Temple.
My heart and my flesh have rejoiced in the living God. For the sparrow hath found herself a house, and the turtledove a nest for herself where she may lay her young, Even Thine altars, O Lord of hosts, my King and my God. Blessed are they that dwell in Thy house; unto ages of ages shall they praise Thee.

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