Monday, March 26, 2007

spelling "relief"

I don't think it gets much air time anymore, but there used to be an ad campaign for Rolaids--a popular antacid--that said you spell "relief," R-O-L-A-I-D-S. This weekend I learned a shorter spelling for "relief"--B-O-W.

I finally had a chance to visit an Orthodox monastery. Every year a group of men from Holy Cross goes up to St. Tikhon of Zadonsk Monastery, near Scranton, PA, for a Lenten retreat. This year, at least, it was a relatively informal event. The general idea was to travel up on Friday and return Sunday afternoon. There was no set time to arrive (some of us set out mid-morning and arrived in time for Vigil, others came after work in the evening), and aside from the requirement that we attend Divine Liturgy Saturday and Sunday, no set schedule of events. I think just about all of us attended both DL in the morning and Vigil in the evening. Saturday afternoon, several of us also participated in an informal Akathist for the OCF groups in our area. We also attended a luncheon after DL on Saturday, followed by a visit to the bookstore and an impromptu tour of the monastery and seminary with one of the students, and ate two other meals at the seminary.

We didn't know when the weekend was originally selected that there would be an ordination on Saturday (the reason for the luncheon)--performed by our own Bp. THOMAS, no less. We also didn't know until we got there on Friday that a monk would be tonsured during the Vigil that night. Until this weekend, I'd never been to a hierarchical service of any kind or even seen a bishop in person. So much for that. Met. HERMAN, primate of the OCA, and Bp. TIKHON, OCA Bishop of Philadelphia, also serve respectively as Abbot and Deputy Abbot of the monastery. They served together at the Vigil and tonsuring on Friday. So not only was it a hierarchical service--there were two bishops, including a primate, with an army of priests, deacons, and sub-deacons. I'm guessing you don't get that experience too many places besides a seminary, or maybe a major cathedral. But at a large cathedral, I suspect you'd have more people and more space, and probably not be quite so close to the action.

We had an opportunity after Vigil to talk with Fr. David, who was being ordained the next morning. Actually, two opportunities--right after the service in the church, and later at the hotel restaurant. There isn't much around South Canaan, and the hotel we stayed at is pretty much the standard for visitors to the monastery or seminary. In fact, Bp. THOMAS was also staying there (but we resisted the urge to bug him, even though we found out his room number). So the family and friends who came into town for the ordination were there, and it was the logical choice for them all to go out to eat (despite Fr. David's disparaging remarks about the food when we talked with him earlier).

Saturday morning was my first time to see Bp. THOMAS in person. He served the liturgy alone (as alone as a bishop can be in such a setting; there were still a lot of other clergy, just no other bishops). I was personally blown away by his presence. A lot of it's hard to put my finger on--there's his strong and clear voice when serving, his down-to-earth and completely natural homily, and the personal affection you could tell he had for Fr. David (even though he's not actually his bishop). But the whole effect was much more that the sum of those parts--I just have no problem with the idea that this guy is my shepherd.

Saturday evening, Bp. TIKHON served alone at the Vigil, and Sunday DL was non-hierarchical. It was still a good service, though. I savored as much as I could, since I knew the weekend was about to end. Jim and I got to the church early, so I was able to make a full pass of the icons and relics, and one more to say good-bye at the end of the service. In addition to having a reliquary with some prominent saints--Herman of Alaska (just outside, actually), Nikolai of Zhicha, Tikhon of Zadonsk, Tikhon of Moscow, Raphael of Brooklyn--I know I'm leaving some out, but it really is a good collection--they also have the body of St. Alexis of Wilkes-Barre. Jim tells me he was originally buried in the cemetery outside, then was dug up later and found to be incorrupt, moved to a mausoleum beside the church, then moved inside to the nave itself.

Attending so many services can be physically demanding when you're not used to it. You stand a lot in Orthodox services anyway, but normally you get some time in between to recover. By the end of the day Saturday, my feet and back were pretty sore. I commented to James before Vigil that night that standing for worship is like fasting. One of the things about fasting is, it helps you truly appreciate the foods you can eat when the fast is over. In our American culture, we typically have too much of everything and too often. When it comes time for a feast day, like Thanksgiving, the only way we can make it stand out is to truly stuff ourselves beyond all reasonable limits. By contrast, it doesn't take much to turn Pascha into a feast. As long as there's meat and cheese, it's a celebration. But you get that by preparing with 40-plus days of abstinence from those things. In the same way, when you stand a lot, you learn to appreciate the opportunities you have to sit.

After the service, I refined my observation. Yes, standing a lot does make you appreciate sitting. It also makes you appreciate bowing. Frequent bowing may seem like work when taken out of context. But when hours of standing have taken their toll on your back, bowing is such a relief! You look for every opportunity to extend a simple cross into a bow to the floor. And if it weren't the weekend, you'd happily prostrate to get off your feet. It occurred to me, after surviving the ordeal of that Vigil, that there's a metaphor in here for my own experience with Orthodoxy. I tried to stand on my own for so long, that the only relief I could get was to bow before Christ and humbly admit my own weakness. And the beauty of the metaphor is, it's an on-going thing. Life is a process of learning to bow. We all have to do it when we come to him for the first time, but it continues beyond that. As we grow, we gain more strength to stand, and the pain is less. (I think eventually we learn to bow out of love, rather than pain, but it has to start somewhere.) We might be able to stand for longer intervals, with the strength he gives us, but we always come back to the same place, on the ground before him.

From the outside, it's the bowing that looks like a hardship. Mostly, these spectators have given up trying to stand. They sat down long ago, or worse, they lay down dead. They've found relief from the strain of standing by another means--one that makes them forget why they were standing in the first place, rather than appreciate the relief of sitting. They can't fathom why anyone would want to bow, because they don't stand in the first place. Then there are those who stand in defiance. They grit their teeth through the pain. They curse God, who made it so painful to stand. Sadly, many of them will carry this posture into the next life, where the pain will only increase and relief will never come. But it's a pain they bring on themselves. Christ has already shown us the way. He bowed down himself, to reach us on our level. He wants to raise us up to be truly human, even more, to become divine. But if we won't bow, we cannot follow. It's not an arbitrary rule--it's just how our backs were made.

It's Monday again, and prostrations never felt so good!


Fr. Andrew said...


I have nothing of substance to mention, but I was one of the priests who served at that ordination liturgy (I was the guy in dark red). I'm glad you had a good time up here at our seminary.

Over the past couple years, I've really grown to love Bp. Thomas. I've met many bishops, and anyone who is part of his flock should feel blessed indeed!

Trevor said...

Oh, but you've been so much more helpful than you could have imagined. Of the many unanswered questions I had, at least now there is one less. I was wondering who you were (or more precisely, what you were), with those vestments that stood out so distinctively. I wouldn't have guessed you were Antiochian. Thanks!