Wednesday, April 25, 2007


We'll be heading off on vacation next week to Williamsburg, VA. I'm ready for it; I don't know if it's the change in weather or what, but it's getting harder to focus on work at the moment. I probably won't post anything while we're gone; I guess they have high-speed in the business center, but otherwise online access will be pretty limited. That might not be such a bad thing either.

I have my reading lined up:
  • Orientalism, by Edward Said--I've been wanting to read it for quite some time, but something else was always more pressing.
  • The Way of a Pilgrim, by an anonymous 19th-c. Russian--a classic that I just realized I could get from the public library.
  • St. Silouan the Athonite, by Archm. Sophrony--ordered it from Amazon a while back, took a long time to arrive and then to make its way to the top of the stack.
And of course I'll have my usual Scripture and prayer books, if all that isn't enough.

I'm also planning to take the second disc (assuming it arrives from Netflix) of The Idiot--the Russian miniseries rendition that came out in the past few years. I was assigned to read Crime and Punishment over the summer for my senior English class in high school, and found it to be one of the worst experiences of my life. After I got interested in Orthodoxy, I decided I should give Dostoevsky another chance and read The Brothers Karamazov. That went much better, so I started The Possessed but broke it off after the first few chapters because other stuff was more pressing. I heard good things about this series and started the first disc with no prior knowledge about the book. It's interesting, if not quite my usual taste in movies.

I had hoped to visit a Greek parish in Newport News (the closest Orthodox church I could find, about 25 min. away), but my parents will be with us for the day on Sunday. (They live in SC right now, so we thought this might be a bit shorter trip for them to make than to come all the way up to see us at home.) I seem to be the only one who's interested in attending church at all, and I certainly understand wanting to spend the limited time we have together doing something more interactive. Besides, I didn't figure I'd push too hard to drag everyone to a service that's only half in English. No services during the week, either.

Nevertheless, it should be relaxing and enjoyable (at least whenever Ian's sleeping :-) I'll report back when I return.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

vaguely Anglican

Today Julie and I continued our exploration of churches that might constitute some kind of a middle ground between the Anabaptist Evangelicalism that she still feels comfortable with and the Orthodoxy that I'm looking for. We visited the 9:00 "family" service at St. Mark's Episcopal, which happens to be the most convenient time for us to attend a service. We went into it pretty much expecting that we'd have to visit there at least twice. They have four services (and are working on a fifth), each of which is a bit different in style. The two that concern us most are the 9:00 and the 11:00, which is the high-church traditional service, with full choir and adult sermon. The 9:00 is stripped-down, with more contemporary music and a children's sermon during the service. It comes in at just under an hour, followed by a coffee break, and an adult "interactive sermon" at the same time as Sunday school for the kids. Rick had already warned us that this service probably wouldn't do much for me, so we didn't come with terribly high hopes, or at least I didn't.

I asked Julie afterward what she thought of the service, and her main characterizations were that it seemed lacking in authenticity and conviction. After a bit more discussion, I think I agree. At one point during the service, Ian was wriggling around, and I found that an insert in my bulletin had almost completely slipped out. It was hanging down, with one corner still barely under my thumb. As soon as I realized it, the thought occurred to me that it was probably going to fall, and as if on cue, it did. I kind of felt like something similar was going on with the connection between form and substance in the service--that something was going to give at any moment, probably as soon as anyone noticed the problem. I'm sure there were meanings behind everything, just as in Orthodoxy, and I'm sure there is plenty in Orthodox rubrics that most parishoners couldn't begin to explain, but somehow it felt like the disconnect here was much worse.

I don't want to judge too harshly before having a chance to attend the more traditional service, since it seems like much of what I was sensing was at least exaggerated by the unique characteristics of the 9:00. Something doesn't seem quite right about a formalized liturgy that's supposed to be timeless but consists of music that was probably contemporary about three decades ago. The actual songs/hymns/choruses (not sure what label to use here) didn't bother me so much--no more so than when we go back and visit the church we grew up in, with its mix of traditional Evangelical hymns and mostly out-of-date (or badly rendered) "contemporary" choruses. But the liturgical bits during the communion section, where the priest and congregation would sing responsively, didn't seem at all like the type of thing that should sound like 70s folk music. I also wasn't quite sure what to think about the processions of the Gospel and clergy, coming in at the beginning to strains of "Lord I Lift Your Name on High" and exiting at the end to "Blessed Be the Name." The whole experience, including my reaction, was reminiscent of the first (and last) day I tuned into "the Ark." I really hope I don't have to see Orthodoxy head down the same road.

I never quite got whether the altar area was supposed to be somehow sacred. Julie says she didn't notice anyone crossing at all, but I'm pretty sure one of the altar servers crossed himself while entering on at least one occasion, but the inconsistency leaves a lot of questions. (I also noticed at least some of those who went up to take communion crossing themselves.) Speaking of communion, we were both bothered by the level of openness. Neither of us participated--Julie because she didn't want to risk getting sick from the common cup, me because I didn't think it would be appropriate as an Orthodox catechumen. But we'd made those decisions before we went. We were struck, though, by the apparent lack of concern about the possible risks involved with taking communion unworthily. There didn't seem to be any call to self-examination, or even any indication that communion should be for believers. He referred to Jesus's eating with sinners, said everyone was welcome, and never seemed to qualify it in any other way. It's obviously quite different from the Orthodox approach, but Julie noted that she's had experiences of internal struggle when taking communion, where the need to partake worthily has really forced her to examine her own heart condition. Maybe that goes on in Episcopalians, but from what we could tell, pretty much everyone went up. She said at least credit is due to the Orthodox for grasping the seriousness involved.

Another area of apparent inconsistency was the priestly vestments. It looked like there were three priests (although, looking at the staff list, I think one of them might have been a deacon), with wildly different vestments. One was striped and looked to me like it might be something African (maybe because of the active Anglican movement in Africa?), another had figures of children on it and looked vaguely international (maybe an "all the children of the world" theme?) ; the head priest had a more elaborate robe--I'm having trouble now recalling what it looked like, except that it was quite different from the other two. I came away with the suspicion that they get to pick from a wide range of options, some of which might have some traditional meaning and usage in other parts of the world. But again, it seems like one of those areas where traditional meaning has given way to personal preference.

The people seemed friendly enough. A few spoke with us after the service, and there was a lot of interaction during the greeting time somewhere in the middle. (Actually, that part of the service seemed awkward, as the otherwise orderly flow was disrupted by an overly long gap for greetings, followed by announcements before the service resumed.) We didn't end up staying after the coffee break. Ian doesn't do well attending class without us in a strange place, and we discovered that, contrary to what I'd seen on the schedule earlier, one of the women would be preaching today. (That's another problematic area, since even if we were fine attending when Rick was preaching, we'd still have to deal with female clergy at least some of the time.) Julie thought it was a more user-friendly service than in Orthodox churches, but I'm not sure either one of us would get much mileage out of that. We definitely plan to attend the 11:00 service sometime, but so far there doesn't seem to be too much promising to report.

Thursday, April 19, 2007


Some of my vacation reading arrived early. (I requested a few books from the library, expecting they'd take a couple of days to appear--sometime by the end of this week, and then Julie could pick them up whenever she went in next week. She was handed two out of three a few hours after I placed the request online.) Maybe a month or two ago I finally got a disc that had been on my Netflix list for quite some time--The End of Suburbia. It's a documentary that turned out to have much more to do with peak oil than with suburbia as such. (The connection is obvious, but I still think the title a bit misleading.) I took note of the contributors who seemed to have written more about the architecture/urban planning side of things and looked up their books online. In particular, I was interested to read a couple of books by James Howard Kunstler--The Geography of Nowhere and Home from Nowhere. As luck would have it, I got them in reverse order, but so far it doesn't seem like too much of a handicap.

As you might guess, the first book lays out the problem; the second focuses more on possible solutions. The author can be a bit repetitive at times, but he's usually entertaining to read, so aside from my usual impatience (almost regardless of what I'm reading), I don't object too much to the length. The gist of his argument is that suburbia is an unnatural and antisocial environment, ultimately unsustainable and unfit for human existence. It was made possible by our obsession with cars, and it will inevitably die out as fuel is used up. (The second book was written in 1996, before G. W. Bush, before the current Iraq war, before $3/gal. gasoline, which makes his points all the more interesting.) We've created a society in which it is almost impossible not to commute in some fashion, in which home, work, and basic services are generally far removed from each other, in which civic life is dead, because it has nowhere to reside. We live our isolated existences, find no real joy in our surroundings, in a cold, dead, ugly world.

He doesn't seem to be particularly religious, but he has a lot to say about beauty and dignity, and how we've sacrificed both. Reading this book makes me think of the austere functionality of many Evangelical churches. (I'm thinking especially of a large church I pass every day on the way to work--recently built at I have no idea what astronomical cost--which looks from the outside like a warehouse.) I don't know if Kunstler would think onion domes are inherently beautiful, but I have to believe he'd appreciate the effort of Orthodox churches to transform their external world (not necessarily at the expense of the spiritual, either).

It also makes me sad. I wouldn't go so far as to say "depressed," but it's heading in that direction. I've mentioned before the link between my attraction to Orthodoxy and my desire for rootedness, community, and locality. I realize the irony, of course, that in America Orthodox churches are still few and far between, so that often attending one means a lot of driving. Circumstantially, it's the one advantage I can see to becoming Catholic, that in most places throughout the U. S. you don't have to go very far to find the nearest Catholic parish. Of course, one answer is to move closer (assuming you can do that without at the same time moving further away from work), but here my complicated life gets even more complicated, in that Julie and I would have different priorities as to which church we should approach.

We also have different priorities on this whole issue of proximity. Personally, I would sacrifice size of dwelling, safety of neighborhood, quality of schools, and overall environmental appeal to live where I could walk or take a reasonable bus ride to work and church. That's not to say that I'd want to live in abject squalor (squalor, yes; abject, no) or a neighborhood with daily shootings, but the point is I'm willing to make sacrifices in those areas. She wants the white picket fence, two cars, and ideal schools, even if it means living 30-40 miles away from the most promising jobs, with no public transit. Unfortunately, our modern world hasn't left us too many compromise options. Kunstler talks about the need for mixed zoning, where businesses and affordable housing are in close proximity--basically, viable towns and cities on the model that worked for centuries. But until such things actually happen, we're left with hard choices.

The other angle on all this is learning to be content in whatever circumstances. It may be that I just need to avoid reading this kind of material, because it articulates an ideal but one that I'm mostly going to long for without actively pursuing. That can get unhealthy pretty quickly. Kunstler may have a lot of valid points to make, but his vision is about human solutions. The beauty of Orthodoxy is that it has room for both the soaring cathedral and the humble monastic cell. It is the Church of kings and catacombs. Perhaps someday God will give me more than one icon on my wall and the occasional service every couple of weeks. But he can change my life without those things as well.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Great and Holy Friday, parts 1, 2, 3, 4 . . .

Last Saturday, Bp. THOMAS suggested that we just plan to stay at church all through Holy Week, with the reminder that, "If you don't like church, you gonna hate heaven!" (I think everyone needs a bishop from New Jersey.) He doesn't have to tell me twice, but I'm still trying to convince my family :-) The point is well taken, though, when you think about services for Great and Holy Friday ("Good Friday" in the West). Start with three or four hours of Matins Thursday night (remember the liturgical day starts in the evening), reading all the Gospel passages from the teachings following the Last Supper until the burial, kneeling for each reading, and don't forget the procession with the cross and waiting for everyone to come forward on their knees and venerate. This was my first time at that service. I really have no idea how to convey in words what it was like. "Strenuous" only captures part of it. "Sad, but in a good way" is fumbling. During the veneration I had a vision of this scene, multiplied to virtual infinity with all the congregations all over the world that have done this same thing each year, down through the centuries, all overlaid on the original event. The disciples ran away in that dark hour, but could he look down from the cross and see billions of Christians to come, who would creep reverently and quietly to the foot of the cross and kiss those scarred feet? It seems like he must have.

Then there's the service of the Royal Hours, at which First, Third, Sixth, and Ninth Hour prayers are done in a row, one right after the other. I missed that one this year, but I attended last year. It takes another couple of hours Friday morning.

This afternoon is Vespers, at which the body will be taken down from the cross and placed in the "tomb" (actually the bottom of a flower-covered bier). We'll have a chance to venerate then, and many will be back later in the evening for Lamentations--a beautiful service in which the bier is processed outside (looks like clear weather this year) to the mournful chanting of the Trisagion. That was actually my first service at Holy Cross, and I haven't been able to make it back since. This year it coincides with the Good Friday service at Bethany, so I'll be with my family instead. After the Lamentations service, there will be a vigil through the night, with folks reading over the body as they do when anyone dies (although I think they read the Gospels instead of the Psalms).

Indeed, it would be much easier (and much better) just to stay there all day.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

teriyaki mahi-mahi, vegan cake, and the deep breath before the final plunge

In a way, today felt like the day before the start of Lent. I don't recall feeling this way on past Palm Sundays. Maybe I've been more interactive with the cycle of feasts and fasts this time around, maybe my spirit is more closely attuned to the rhythms of Orthodox life, maybe it helps that at least this day I'm in sync with my Western-calendar family and friends. In that last respect, it helps that today was (coincidentally) a potluck lunch with the small group from Bethany. Palm Sunday itself may have been a minor blip in the day's events, but at least there was food and fellowship, and I needn't have brought my fish sticks (although it worked out well for the kids), because there was grilled mahi-mahi. Julie also tried her hand at making vegan chocolate cake--perhaps her first cake ever from scratch--which turned out to be a hit with the group. I normally try to keep my Lenten menu as simple as possible, rather than push the boundaries of what's allowed. But it was good to make this a true feast day. And of course I knew that I still had the final push through Holy Week ahead of me.

I'm not going to push quite as hard as I have in some years past. I'll eat a little bread and drink some water each of the first three days. Thursday I hope to polish off the remaining hummus and the concoction of taco-seasoned beans that I later mixed with leftover corn and couscous. I don't like to have fasting food left after the end of a long fasting season. I won't be in the mood to eat it again for a while. I'm planning to do the total fast on Holy Friday and a little bread on Saturday. Then--it may not be a traditional configuration--but I figured out that pretty much all the traditional elements of the Pascha basket are contained in meat-lover's pizza. So that's pretty much what I'm bringing--maybe a danish as well, and the requisite quiche to share. But I'm getting a bit ahead of myself. There's still Holy Week to get through. I tried to plan everything out, so I won't have to think much about food in the coming days. I'm hoping that putting it all down in writing will help lock it out of mind.

Julie asked me the other day if I was looking forward to Lent being over. I wasn't sure how to answer. It's difficult to explain to someone who's never been through it. Of course, I feel like I could have done so much more with it. It would be nice to have more time, which seems to have flown by. Also, frankly, I like the discipline. Not that I wouldn't like to have some fried chicken or a cheeseburger too. But in my more lucid moments, I think the ascetic struggle is preferable. Of course, I am looking forward to Pascha. To me, though, that's not quite the same thing as wanting Lent to end. That's not what gets me excited. Sure, it will feel that much better when I bite into that pizza six days from now. I'll have the contrast to tell me what it means to feast. But God help me--I hope I can feel hungry again before Bright Tuesday is over. I'm not quite ready to give up meat permanently, but if the discipline of Lent can't spill over somehow into the rest of life, what has it really achieved?

And of course, the food part is the least concern. Will I come away with greater love? Greater strength for the struggle against sin? Greater humility? I hope so. But that's where I feel like I could use more time. And I'm not talking about another week--maybe a few years or a few decades. I don't think I could do this if it ended with anything less than St. John Chrysostom's homily. I need to hear when the buzzer sounds that I'm still welcome, even if I've come up short. But it's not time to give up yet! I've still got the lightning round ahead of me. We all have. Thank God, we're in this together. Pray for me! It's getting late (in more ways than one), and I'd better be off to prayers myself . . .