Thursday, June 28, 2007

MD gets a monastery?

Every now and then I check online to see if I can find any information about an Orthodox monastery nearby. By "nearby" I mean, closer than three hours away. There's none in DC, none in DE, a couple in WV, but too far away to be of much use, a schismatic one in NJ (still pretty far, though), and another in VA. MD appears to have one women's monastery in Baltimore that receives no visitors--nice to have their prayers, but otherwise not of much immediate use. There are monasteries in PA and NY--some in NYC might be a touch closer (and now that I think about it, perhaps easier to get to by train), but otherwise the closest and most accessible are three (women's) to four (men's) hours away in PA. St. Tikhon's falls in this category, and with its long heritage and prominence in America, it's probably the best candidate for any kind of visit (it happens to be where we have our men's retreat each year during Lent), but a four-hour drive does tend to make prohibitive anything more than a once-a-year pilgrimage.

Well, yesterday I checked the usual listings and saw nothing encouraging. As a last attempt, I Googled "orthodox monastery md" and ran across a very brief news item about a monastery ground-breaking. A bit more specific searching brought up a longer piece, but still without much detail. The GOA Metropolitan of NJ broke ground barely two months ago on a monastery and retreat center in Emmitsburg, MD--a little over an hour away! The article talks mainly about the retreat center aspect of it, so I have no idea who's starting the monastic community or when. There are some good Greek monasteries around the country, though, so one can hope that this new establishment will follow a high standard.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

St. Joanna the Myrrh-bearer

On June 27 is commemorated St. Joanna the Myrrh-bearer. Her life is recorded in the Prologue of Ohrid:
Joanna was the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward: "Joanna the wife of Chuza, Herod's steward" (St. Luke 8:3). When Herod beheaded John the Baptist he disposed of his head in an unclean place. Joanna removed the head of the Baptist and buried it honorably on the Mount of Olives on Herod's estate. Later, during the reign of Constantine the Great, the head of John the Baptist was discovered. St. Joanna is also remembered as being present both at the suffering and at the resurrection of the Lord. She died peacefully.
and with a different emphasis, in the OCA Lives of the Saints:
Saint Joanna the Myrrh-bearer, wife of Chusa, the household steward of King Herod, was one of the women following and attending the Lord Jesus Christ during the time of His preaching and public ministry. She is mentioned in Luke 8:3 and 24:10. Together with the other Myrrh-bearing Women, St. Joanna went to the Sepulchre to anoint the Holy Body of the Lord with myrrh after His death on the Cross, and she heard from the angels the joyful proclamation of His All-Glorious Resurrection. According to Tradition, she recovered the head of St. John the Baptist after Herodias had disposed of it (February 24).
St. Joanna is a relatively minor saint and barely makes it into the list commemorated at the end of vespers, but as a Myrrh-bearer, she gets a full Sunday of hymns each year, two weeks after Pascha. This includes three Stichera in the Second Tone, from the AOA Liturgical Guide On-Line:
Early, at dawn, the ointment-bearing women arose, and carrying ointments, came to the Lord's tomb. And not attaining their desire, the pious women pondered the removal of the stone, addressing one another and saying, Where are the seals of the grave? Where are Pilate's watchmen and the security of his great care? And lo, an angel, radiant as lightning, proclaimed to them that of which they were ignorant, addressing them and saying, Why, wailing, seek ye the Living who produceth life for mankind? Christ our God hath risen from the dead, since He is Almighty, bestowing on all, life, incorruptibility, illumination, and the Great Mercy.

Why mingle ye tears with the ointment, O women Disciples? Behold, the stone hath been rolled away, and the sepulchre is empty. Behold corruption trodden under of Life the seals bearing clear witness, the guards of the rebellious fast asleep, the dead saved by the body of God, and hades mourning. Hasten ye with joy, and tell the Disciples that Christ, who is First-born of the dead, who caused death to die, shall go before you into Galilee.

The ointment-bearers, O Christ, rose up early and hastened to thy tomb, seeking to anoint with oils thine incorruptible body. But when the glad tidings were brought to them by the words of the angel, with signs of joy they proclaimed to the Apostles that the Element of our salvation had risen, leading death captive, and granting the world life eternal and the Great Mercy.
and one in the Sixth Tone:
The ointment-bearing women, O Savior, came to thy tomb; and when they beheld the seals, not finding thy body, they hurried anxiously, wailing and saying, Who hath stolen our Hope? Who hath taken away a naked, embalmed corpse, the only consolation to his Mother? Woe! How hath the dead-reviving One died? And how was he buried who spoiled hades? But arise thou by thine own power after three days, as thou didst say, and save our souls.
Exaposteilarion in the Second Tone:
Hear the voice of gladness, O women; for I have trodden down rebellious hades, and raised the world from corruption. Wherefore, hasten ye and proclaim the glad tidings to my beloved; for I desire that joy shall break forth thence upon my creation, whence first came forth sorrow.
Eothinon in the Second Tone:
They who were with Mary came and brought with them ointments; and as they were at a loss how to achieve their desire, they saw that the stone had been rolled, and a divine young man removed all anxiety and trouble from their souls by saying, The Lord Jesus hath risen. Wherefore, they proclaimed to His Disciples, that they should hasten to Galilee and behold Him, risen from the dead; for He is the Lord, the Giver of life.
Kontakion in the Second Tone, from the OCA Lives of the Saints:
You did command the myrrh-bearers to rejoice, O Christ!
By Your Resurrection, You did stop the lamentation of Eve, O God!
You did command Your apostles to preach: The Savior is Risen!
Troparion in the Second Tone:
The angel came to the myrrhbearing women at the tomb and said:
Myrrh is meet for the dead;
But Christ has shown Himself a stranger to corruption!
So proclaim: the Lord is risen,
Granting the world great mercy!
Lord willing, Julie and I are expecting a daughter sometime in the next month or so. Her name will be Jenna, a later form of Joanna (both derived from Ioann/John). From the time we were first told that she would be a girl and settled on the name, I have prayed for her every night in St. Joanna's name. I know most of my Evangelical friends and family, including my wife, think such things are foolish or downright Satanic. I can't blame them--I used to think the same way myself, and it's still one of those areas where I don't quite feel comfortable yet, but I do it anyway.

I don't really know how to explain it in a way that's going to convince anyone--you either believe in the intercession of saints, or you don't. But something about this particular situation seems logical to me. I've never seen Jenna, other than some fuzzy, sonographic images; never spoken to her in any way that I could know experientially that she hears or responds or knows I exist. But she is part of me--my flesh and blood--and for that reason I love her and pray for her. I've only seen St. Joanna in icons, never met her, never heard a response from her. But we are joined by a bond stronger than biological family--we are both part of Christ; a bond stronger than death, I might add, since he has conquered death. If this communion of love does not result in her prayers for struggling sinners like me, what sense does that make?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

shedding some dark on vigils

An article I read recently pointed me to At Day's Close: Night in Times Past, by A. Roger Ekirch. If there's a history of nighttime in Western culture, this book is it. What particularly interested me was the last chapter, "Sleep We Have Lost: Rhythms and Revelations," which discusses the phenomenon of segmented sleep. Following are some highlights from the chapter, although I would recommend getting the book from your local library, if this subject interests you:
Until the close of the early modern era, Western Europeans on most evenings experienced two major intervals of sleep bridged by up to an hour or more of quiet wakefulness. . . . the intervening period of wakefulness bore no name, other than the generic term "watch" or "watching." . . .

Both phases of sleep lasted roughly the same length of time, with individuals waking sometime after midnight before returning to rest. . . .

Men and women referred to both intervals as if the prospect of awakening in the middle of the night was common knowledge that required no elaboration. . . .

. . . the vast weight of surviving evidence indicates that awakening naturally was routine, not the consequence of disturbed or fitful slumber. . . .

At first glance, it is tempting to view this pattern of broken sleep as a cultural relic rooted in early Christian experience. Ever since St. Benedict in the sixth century required that monks rise after midnight for the recital of verses and psalms ("At night we will rise to confess to Him"), this like other regulations of the Benedictine order spread to growing numbers of Frankish and German monasteries. By the High Middle Ages, the Catholic Church actively encouraged early morning prayer among Christians as a means of appealing to God during the still hours of darkness. "Night vigils," Alan of Lille declared in the twelfth century, "were not instituted without reason, for by them it is signified that we must rise in the middle of the night to sing the night office, so that the night may not pass without divine praise." . . .

Although Christian teachings undoubtedly popularized the imperative of early morning prayer, the Church itself was not responsible for introducing segmented sleep. However much it "colonized" the period of wakefulness between intervals of slumber, references to "first sleep" antedate Christianity's early years of growth. . . . as recently as the twentieth century some non-Western cultures with religious beliefs other than Christianity still exhibited a segmented pattern of sleep remarkably similar to that of preindustrial Europeans. . . .

. . . There is every reason to believe that segmented sleep, such as many wild animals exhibit, had long been the natural pattern of our slumber before the modern age, with a provenance as old as humankind. . . . In attempting to recreate conditions of "prehistoric" sleep, Dr. Thomas Wehr and his colleagues found that human subjects, deprived of artificial light at night over a span of several weeks, eventually exhibited a pattern of broken slumber--one practically identical to that of preindustrial households. . . .

After midnight, preindustrial households usually began to stir. Many of those who left their beds merely needed to urinate. . . . Some persons, however, after arising, took the opportunity to smoke tobacco, check the time, or tend a fire. . . .

None were more familiar than the Church with sinister forces in the dead of night. "Can men break their sleep to mind the works of darkness, and shall we not break ours," asked Reverend Horneck, "for doing things, which become the children of light?" . . . Certainly, there was no shortage of prayers intended to be recited "when you awake in the night" or "at our first waking," a time not to be confused with either dawn or "our uprising," for which wholly separate devotions were prescribed. . . .

Most people, upon awakening, probably never left their beds, or not for long. Besides praying, they conversed with a bedfellow or inquired after the well-being of a child or spouse. . . . Sexual intimacy often ensued between couples. . . .

Perhaps even more commonly, persons used this shrouded interval of solitude to immerse themselves in contemplation--to ponder events of the preceding day and to prepare for the arrival of dawn. Never, during the day or night, were distractions so few and privacy so great, especially in crowded households. . . .
In the last section of the chapter, he discusses at length the significance of this sleep pattern for contemplation of dreams. I'm only going to reproduce one small portion:
. . . Clinical experiments at the National Institute of Mental Health confirm that subjects who experienced two stages of slumber were in rapid eye movement (REM) sleep just before they awakened around midnight, with REM being the stage of sleep directly connected to dreaming. What's more, Thomas Wehr has found, "transitions to wakefulness are most likely to occur from REM periods that are especially intense," typically accompanied by "particularly vivid dreams" distinguished by their "narrative quality," which many of the subjects in his experiment contemplated in the darkness.
The gist of the section is that this period of wakefulness provides a unique opportunity to contemplate dreams, which is now largely absent in modern society.

For all you folks out there who find yourselves up in the middle of the night anyway, it might be encouraging to think that you're more normal than most of us. What interests me about the phenomenon is its implication for midnight offices and vigils. What appears to our modern sensibilities as extreme asceticism--to awaken in the middle of the night for prayer--would have been much less demanding when it was instituted. If a wakeful period in the middle of the night was normal, what better way to spend it than in prayer? Indeed, I read somewhere recently that it was considered more rigorously ascetic to abandon the practice in favor of sleeping a bit longer for one continuous block, getting up early in the morning, and staying up. I guess that means we're more ascetic these days than our ancestors were, although I'm not sure how much good that has done us.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

a note to my readers (mostly, to Evangelicals)

I want to take a step back for a moment and do some meta-blogging (blogging about blogging). First, an observation--that monologs are dangerous things. They're a poor substitute for communication, in that one person just rambles on about some topic or concern, while others read or listen and draw their own conclusions. Even worse, a written monolog lacks things like intonation, facial expression, and posture, which are a natural part of oral communication. What the reader is left with is a string of words and a headful of presuppositions. Words intended to convey confusion and frustration may be perceived as bearing animosity and resentment, simply because it never occurred to the writer or the reader that in the absence of intonation, we make up our own. And because monolog generally lacks the countermeasures of normal conversation (a perpetually self-correcting process, if it works the way it should), such misperceptions refuse to go away.

I say this post is mostly for Evangelical readers, because I need to remind myself that I speak and write from an increasingly Orthodox perspective. In some instances, this shift may not matter much, but in others, it can have a radical effect on how words are meant and perceived. I would like to think that I can still write naturally and be understood by my Evangelical readers, but this is perhaps becoming less the case. And the problem is compounded with Evangelical readers in particular (as opposed to other non-Orthodox), because it's obvious that I'm engaged in some sort of departure from their side of things, and it's easy to read negativity into that. Let's be honest--there is negativity in that. But there's negativity and then there's negativity.

Consider the word "critical." It's a single word, but try it in different contexts--really, just different phrases. Think of the phrase, "critical mind," and then, "critical spirit." On the surface, it seems like they should mean roughly the same thing, but do they really? When we say someone has a critical mind, we normally mean it as a good thing. This person thinks carefully about things--doesn't just accept whatever comes along, but weighs the issues and forms educated opinions. On the other hand, when we say someone has a critical spirit, it has a more negative implication. This person is judgmental, never happy with anything, and probably looks down on other people.

Now, an assertion about myself--I am critical of Evangelicalism. What does that mean? Should it be understood in the sense of a critical mind or a critical spirit? Am I trying to be discerning and analytical, or condescending and judgmental? I suppose there's a good reason that the same word can refer to both ideas, and it's easy in most cases for someone who does one to slip into the other. But understand the intent, the spirit, the attitude. Yes, you'll find negative statements about Evangelicalism on this blog. You probably won't have to look very far to find them. If I were completely satisfied with Evangelicalism, I wouldn't be pursuing Orthodoxy. That much should be obvious. Something that might not be quite so obvious is that I've always been critical of Evangelicalism in one way or another. I sometimes forget that criticizing as an outsider (now) is different from criticizing as an insider (then). It will always be perceived differently. I'm not convinced that for that reason I should never say anything about Evangelicalism, or only say positive things about it. (And let's not forget that I do say positive things about it--I think and believe positive things about it as well.) Indeed, I'm not sure how much difference this realization can actually make in what I write. I hope it can help to temper my words, but I do have to draw a line somewhere.

The whole idea of a blog is an odd thing. Journals used to be things that people locked up or hid so others could not read them--places where they would write their intimate thoughts that no one else should see. Now we put anything and everything out on the Web. There's something good about this, because it helps us to connect with others. But it creates a confusion about what exactly it is that we're doing. Should I write academically, objectively, avoiding all real feeling so no one will misinterpret my attitude? In other words, is this public communication, to be treated in every way as such? Or is it more intimate? Should it provide some kind of window into my real thoughts and feelings about things? I honestly want it to be the latter. I don't want to retreat into cold objectivity, because that's not even the point. There are plenty of writings out there to inform people about Orthodoxy. I'm not writing about Orthodoxy, but about myself--about my own experience as I go through this process. If it's interesting to others, great! If not, I hope I don't offend, but in the end each person must make their own choice, whether or not to keep reading.

But please--if you read something that you find offensive or just confusing, use the comments feature. I read all the comments posted and respond to most of them. Blog comments are not a great form of communication either, but at least there's some opportunity for clarification. You might find that my intended tone was nothing like what you perceived, or that you were in a sense listening in on my argument with someone else (a source of confusion in itself). Whatever the outcome, I think the whole thing becomes just a bit more human for the interaction, however limited it might be. I can't offer much more than that.

Monday, June 18, 2007

sometimes you can't go back

I reported a couple of months ago that I'd finally reached the difficult decision to drop out of my Ph.D. program at CUA. Now I'm just a little bit tempted never to pray that God make clear to me whether something was the right decision. Saturday night, I received a call from the department librarian, so she could tell me before I saw a general announcement that Prof. Michael Patrick O'Connor, department chair and formerly a member of my dissertation committee, had passed away. I'm not sure exactly how old he was--fifties, maybe early sixties. He was diagnosed with liver cancer sometime pretty recently (in the past couple of weeks, I think), deteriorated rapidly, spent his last three days in the hospital, and gave out Friday morning. It was the first I'd heard any of it, and from what I can tell, folks closer to him than I were also taken by surprise.

Prof. O'Connor was easier to love than to like. I'm speaking as a student here--he was the hardest teacher I ever had, but I never doubted that it was with the best of intentions. He wanted us to be excellent scholars. Often, a question would come up in class (the best of which he thought of himself), and the next time we met, he'd have prepared a lengthy handout on some involved study he'd done in response. When he gave an assignment, he always had a very specific idea of what it should look like; if he didn't always spell that out as well as he might have, he made up for it by requiring an outline or a draft ahead of time. (The one time I was burned on this point was my own fault--I went ahead and submitted the whole paper instead of an outline, and didn't realize until I got it back with a final grade that I'd gone in the wrong direction.) It was easy to suspect that, as a lifelong bachelor (to my knowledge, anyway), he never quite understood the burdens of family life under which his married students had to work. But he was by no means without compassion. It was at his suggestion and advocacy that I registered in absentia after a particularly unproductive year on my dissertation, which helped a great deal in easing the financial burden. I also remember how much he interacted with the kids at a social function we had for the department, and he always asked to see pictures of Ian (which I never had).

Two key memories I have of O'Connor happened in group activities outside of class. The fondest was when our two-year Akkadian class ended about the time that the movie Scorpion King came out in theaters. A couple of us had noticed from trailers that the character played by The Rock was supposed to be the last living Akkadian, and with the perfect timing, it seemed too good to pass up. You could hear O'Connor laughing throughout, mostly because he was laughing at the parts that weren't meant to be funny, when only those of us who saw the wild inaccuracies got the joke. The most significant memory was when he took our Hebrew Poetry class on a field trip to a synagogue service. Of course, we prepared by studying some samples of prayer book Hebrew. It's a funny thing that my Catholic prof at Catholic University would have been most instrumental in my spiritual life for introducing me to Judaism, but there it is. After that outing, I bought a Jewish prayer book and used it for quite some time. Even though I didn't end up becoming Jewish, it taught me the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi, long before I ever learned what it was called. That principle has probably taken me further than any other single element in the journey I've been on ever since.

The hardest thing about O'Connor was his awkward relationship with Prof. Gropp, the other full-time faculty member in ANE studies, and my dissertation adviser. I never knew much more than rumors about the reasons, but they seemed never to talk with each other unless it was absolutely necessary. This was despite the fact that they shared an office suite, and for the most part shared the same students. Usually one could ignore the tension, but then there were those times when they both had to review the same paper or test (usually something particularly important, like a comprehensive exam or a major paper submitted for the non-thesis M.A. requirement). I was always a bit apprehensive about having both of them on my dissertation committee, but I knew I'd benefit from their input, and it was impossible to exclude either one on a Hebrew linguistic topic.

Well, if O'Connor's death wasn't enough shock for one week, this morning, while looking to see what info might be circulating about him in the scholarly community (he seemed to know personally just about everyone in the field), I discovered that Gropp is leaving CUA this summer for Westminster Seminary in Texas. If I had not dropped out of the program when I did, I would have lost practically my entire dissertation committee just a couple of months later. (The remaining member is in Wisconsin and is not affiliated with CUA.) In a way, it reassures me to know that I really did get out at the right time, but I find the very idea repellent. Surely God could confirm my decision through less drastic means! I was already thinking that it would be difficult to fill O'Connor's place by the end of the summer, but if Gropp is leaving, there will be essentially no ANE faculty. And for such a small department, with perhaps the highest faculty:student ratio in the university, might this turn into an opportunity for economic considerations to take over and end the Semitics program for good? I certainly hope not.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

bizarro church

So, if you'd told me a week ago that today I would attend services at two different churches, I might have been a bit puzzled. If you'd added that yesterday Julie would ask to attend an Orthodox service with me, I'd have been rather confused. If you'd further said that of the two services, the better liturgical experience would be the Evangelical one, I probably would have laughed out loud. But life isn't always as we expect, is it?

So last night, Julie says she's been thinking about something. (That's ominous enough.) Since next Sunday is Father's Day, she thinks it would be a fitting gift to accompany Ian and me to the liturgy at Holy Cross. The only catch is, she doesn't want to miss services at Bethany two weeks in a row, so it would mean canceling our planned visit to St. Mark's Episcopal Church this week. I ponder her suggestion for half a second or so, and accept the change of plans :-) We pretty much already know that the Episcopal Church is an unlikely option for us. Julie's main objections are the lax attitude toward homosexuality, the role of female clergy, and the ultra-openness of communion. None of these objections has anything to do with the type of service, so from her standpoint another visit can't make much difference.

She's probably right, although I was hoping it would help to narrow things down a bit. Even if we knew we didn't want to attend an Episcopal church, a positive reaction to the service might suggest some other options--various Anglican splinter groups, Western rite Orthodox, or Catholic. On the other hand, a negative reaction to the high-church service would tend to rule out those other options, without wasting our time trying them. She said, however, that I could still visit the service at St. Mark's on my own, if I wanted. It's late enough that it doesn't conflict with the service we usually attend at Bethany. I figured it would be useful to know my own reaction at least, since if I didn't like it, there'd be no point in pursuing it further.

So, at 9:00, we went to Bethany for the last part of a series on Moses. "Holy Moses," they called it, to make the point that for some people this phrase would be a mild form of cursing, but we really mean it. I'm a bit skeptical myself. I tend to think that the title was chosen to play off of the slang term, not because we would ordinarily refer to him as Holy Moses. This may seem like a picky point to bother making, but it introduces what I think is perhaps a bigger problem. It can be framed as a choice between sacred Tradition or marketing gimmick. When an Orthodox person refers seriously to Holy Moses, they mean it, and they mean it consistently, and it falls within the context of an overall theology of saints. An Evangelical instead uses the term as long as it's useful to make a point, and then casts it aside just as quickly as they picked it up.

Let's apply this same choice to another issue in the context of this series--that of images. Ordinarily, Bethany can be characterized as strictly iconoclastic. Its interior walls are regularly bare. It does have a cross in the front (somewhat better than in some churches I've visited), and one side wall is glass, so you can look out at God's creation. But that's about the extent of it. For this series, they've made an exception. An artist in the church has been painting scenes each week, including one week when he was actually painting during the service. As you might guess, he's not painting directly on the walls--just on canvas that can be easily hung up and just as easily taken back down when it's no longer useful. The scenes have contributed something to the effect of the message, although I would say they've had nothing to do with worship, as you might expect in an Evangelical church. But don't expect to see this visual dimension in all future sermons. It's an interesting gimmick to get people's attention, but it won't be a regular thing.

This morning, for the final message, which was about the tabernacle, there was an added dimension. The seating was re-arranged, and in the middle of the room was a skeleton representation of the tabernacle. At the back end of the aisle was some kind of a grill, representing the altar of sacrifice, then a bit further on, a brass bowl, representing the laver. Beyond that was a table with stacked loves of bread, then some burning incense sticks, then this week's painting of the priest performing a sacrifice at the tabernacle. Behind the painting, which was removed after the sermon, were the communion elements. Instead of passing the communion elements around in trays, people came up to pick up the elements and take them to their seats. They were instructed to think as they were walking up the aisle about their sin, their cleansing, their ability to celebrate redemption, to pray, and to enter the holy of holies with Christ. It was certainly moving in its way--a big step up, I would say, from the usual routine. But it will not be like that again. Like the other things, it was a gimmick, to grab attention on this occasion, and then move aside for something else in the future.

After the service, I was talking with a couple of friends who had both visited Orthodox services with me in the past. One was the artist who painted the scenes, and the other said he wanted to take his picture next to them. I said something about striking his Moses pose, and the guy who wanted to take the picture jokingly suggested that we dress up in costume so we could get more of a 3-D effect on the whole thing. I said, if he wanted that, all he had to do was go take pictures of an Orthodox service in progress. He probably missed the point, but it was on my mind throughout the service, that we read these passages about ancient Israel, we recognize and appreciate what was going on at that time, and then we go off and over-spiritualize their application to our own lives. All this stuff in Exodus wasn't just play-acting that people came up with to meet their own religious needs. This was God recognizing that as humans we worship with everything we are. To boil it all down to the idea that we each have our own way to serve, and God wants to use our diverse abilities, and we need to be generous with what we have, is to impoverish what was really going on. Do we think that serving and helping each other is something that belongs only to the New Testament? Those practical issues were there in the Old Testament as well, but they did not replace the Temple rituals. They met two very different types of needs.

So how do we get away with turning these things into mere illustrations? How do we recognize that they were important in the worship of ancient Israel but not see that they are just as important for us today? Aside from a day like this, we no longer smell incense as it rises to heaven with our prayers. Aside from a day like this, we no longer see visual reminders of sacrifice, to tell us how very serious it was for Jesus to die on our behalf. Aside from a day like this, we no longer move through the structure of a temple to emphasize God's holiness. To my Evangelical friends, I have to cry out once again in the words of Charlie Peacock:
Oh, it always amazed me
How someone could come
To the edge of the world,
Drop a stone down the side,
And turn and return
To the very same life.

After that service, I dropped Julie and Ian at home and went over to St. Mark's. I must say, it was a better experience this time than when we went there before, for the contemporary service. Things seemed to flow better (although it still seemed stilted at the beginning), and the music seemed more appropriate to the liturgy. It may be hard for me to see past my preference for Byzantine style, but I still feel like the Western music distracts from rather than highlights the content. At times, it also seemed too rushed, and there were too many points where the flow seemed to stall. A couple of the songs I found really moving (again, without much recollection at all of the words), although unfortunately they seemed to be choir-only selections. Perhaps the impression was exaggerated by the uncharacteristic Bethany service I'd just attended, but the service at St. Mark's seemed comparatively austere. There were things like vestments (which the priest flung over his head when it was necessary to put on something new) and altar rails, but they seemed a thin veneer on a basically Protestant service. In fact, perhaps the biggest disappointment was an impression that I can't really explain in concrete terms--for some reason, the service felt liturgically more like Protestantism plus than Catholicism minus.

I didn't come away with a solid conclusion about much of anything. I wasn't completely turned off by the service, and I could see value in exploring something similar in the future; but I wasn't particularly impressed by it either. In any case, it will probably be a while before we do any more visiting. The baby will be here soon, and it will take a while for things to stabilize after that. It's hard to say what the future holds. For now, next week is enough to think and pray about.

Thursday, June 07, 2007

a "wasted trip" and an unexpected discussion

Last weekend Ian and I flew up to Buffalo for a quick visit with Julie's parents. They were selling us their car pretty cheap, which would have been nice as a backup and so I wouldn't have to mooch rides to church. I drove around quite a bit there, and it seemed to run very well; Monday, it did great on the eight-hour drive home. We took it in for an inspection yesterday, and it turned out the bottom was so badly rusted that it would take $2500 to pass. The mechanic didn't advise putting that kind of money into it and urged us not to drive it any more than to get it home, he was so worried the rear brakes would give way at any time. It's all probably a bit exaggerated, since down here they're just not used to seeing as much rust as you get on a car in the north, but all the same, we trust his judgment on the standards involved, so there's no point trying to drive it. Fortunately, they didn't want us to pay them for the car until we knew whether we could use it or not. So we're only out the cost of the trip, the titling, and the inspection. It's still a really good car otherwise; hopefully we can find someone who needs it for parts or something. We're thankful in any case that nothing happened on the way back from NY.

It wasn't a completely wasted trip. Ian got to ride in Opa's boat on Saturday. I annoyed him by singing "Erie Canal," since that's where we were. (He usually doesn't like it when we sing.) Opa likes to go up there, because it's not very crowded; when we were there on a sunny Saturday afternoon, no one else was at the boat launch, and I don't think we saw another watercraft in an hour of tooling around. Some kids were jumping off a bridge into the water, and we stopped to look at a waterfall where a creek of some kind actually flows under the canal. Ian was ready to go by the time we packed up, to head back in time so I could drive back out to Buffalo for a vigil service.

That was the highlight for me. There's not a single Orthodox parish (as far as I can tell) in Genesee County, where Julie's parents live. Buffalo is a bit closer than Rochester, but you still have a 40-minute drive to the closest one. It's a nice little converted something-or-other, with gold onion domes on the outside. The nave is about the same size as at Holy Cross and oriented correctly. The ceiling is rather flat, though, and plain white. I don't recall any icons painted directly onto the walls, but there are a lot hanging, and an extensive collection of relics to the side. It's a ROCOR parish with a solid Russian iconostasis and minimal seating. I didn't take a head-count, but there were maybe 15-20 people there. The priest served alone. There was a three-voice men's choir, with a reader who sounded vaguely like Johnny Cash. I talked with the priest a bit afterward. He and his wife are converts--former Evangelical missionaries. We talked about my experience so far as an explorer and a catechumen, and about the recent reunion between ROCOR and the MP.

I was disappointed that I wouldn't be returning for liturgy on Sunday, but I really wanted to spend the day with my in-laws and figured it would be good to see some old friends from their church (where Julie and I both grew up). Sunday evening, a friend (former youth leader, former boss, now an elder in the church) came over to talk. After we'd told Julie's parents about my interest in Orthodoxy, her dad had asked if he could share about it with this guy. I'd heard a while back that he was planning to call me about it sometime, so I figured it would come up when we got together. It didn't. We talked about just about everything else, but not that. In fact, the whole weekend, aside from asking how the service went after I got back Saturday night, no one talked to me about it at all. Not that I'm particularly dying to talk with them. But people have a habit of talking to Julie about my interest in Orthodoxy, while avoiding bringing it up with me. It's not fair to her, and I really wish they'd come out and say what they're thinking to me.

Last night, our small group from Bethany met for the first time in a few weeks. And it had been even longer since we'd done an actual Bible study together; the previous meeting was in some degree of disarray due to circumstances in people's lives, so we skipped the study. The meeting before that Julie and I had missed while we were on vacation, so for us it had been an especially long time since the last group study. When we went off on vacation, we expected to miss the discussion of John 6, which was part of a rather large section covered in one lesson. In some ways, I was relieved, since I really don't want to come across as trying to convert everyone to my way of thinking. It turned out, though, that questions had come up about the "bread of life" discourse, which the study guide barely touched on. They'd run out of time to discuss it, so decided to delay it until the next meeting. Lucky me.

The study guide brushes aside the whole issue with a one-sentence marginal note, to the effect that eating Christ's flesh and drinking his blood is metaphorical for believing in his death on the cross. (I don't have it in front of me at the moment, but that's the gist as I recall.) The only actual question for discussion simply asks what it means that Jesus is the bread of life. Judging from our discussion, most people in the group at least saw something more going on in the passage. I feel like I was reasonably successful at avoiding argument. I tried to present the Orthodox view and some of the reasons and bases as straightforwardly as possible. For good measure, I explained the spectrum of Protestant views on communion, and highlighted some of the key arguments for the strict memorial view (the standard opinion at Bethany). We have two former Catholics in the group, one of whom commented that having learned as a child that the communion elements were the body and blood of Christ has left her with a high level of respect for the rite; the other one said that since becoming Protestant, he feels like he now takes communion too lightly. Julie shared about her impression of the Episcopal service we visited, where communion was open to anyone and everyone.

Along the way, one of the group members expressed strong reservation about the idea of clergy preventing people from taking communion. It seemed to her too much like the actions of the hypocritical religious leaders in Jesus's day. She didn't see how any human could judge whether another person's heart was in the right place. I pointed out that he'd be in a better position to make that call if we practiced regular confession, but I don't think that really helped :-) At least now we're through the sacrament portions in John. I really don't feel at all qualified to discuss them, since I have no real experience in this area, so it's a relief to put them behind me.

Well, God willing, I'll be back at Holy Cross tonight for the monthly Paraklesis. This Sunday will be our second visit to the Episcopal church, this time to check out their traditional service. I guess that's all the news for now.