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!

Thursday, May 22, 2008

and there was evening, and there was morning

Cranky Old Guy's back for more. Looking at my most recent posts, I'm really starting to wonder. Anyway . . .

From metrics, to digital, to standard time. I've been reading lately about the development of standard time in America. I never really thought about there being much controversy around this stuff, and as with metrics, I've probably spent most of my life wholeheartedly embracing the current norms. I liked to set my watch down to the second, usually at New Year's. (Yeah, that's what I did at midnight--set my watch.) I'm the one who zealously goes through the house resetting all the clocks twice a year. When I first discovered that I could sync my computer clock with the Naval Observatory online, I couldn't get enough of it. And I was really pretty excited (as much as I disliked the idea of getting a cell phone) about having a clock built into my phone that syncs itself regularly.

But once I realized that these time standards were not implemented without controversy--that they were largely introduced only in a context of war--once I started thinking about them as imposed standards that the government had no business setting, my opinions formed pretty quickly. I'm not sure it would be at all practical to "turn back the clock" on this issue (so to speak), but I'm definitely nostalgic for solar time.

For just about all of human history until the past couple of centuries, the basic standards of time were found in nature--the sun, the moon, the seasons, etc. For marking out the time of day, the sun was the norm. Sunrise in the morning, high noon, sunset in the evening, and some regular divisions in between. Of course, by colonial times in America, there were clocks to help keep things a bit more regular and bridge the gaps when the sun was not readily visible. But they weren't very consistent and had to be constantly re-calibrated--to the sun. And because they weren't very accurate, it was uncommon to find precise agreement between one clock and another, so they couldn't be taken very seriously. Their manufacture was relatively expensive, so many people didn't own one. Needs for common time, to schedule a meeting or show up for an event, were met by public devices--a church bell or clock tower, or maybe a town hall. Those who had their own clocks or watches could set them by the public clock in town, and any clock could be set by a sundial. In a less mechanized world, the system worked well enough.

Ever since moving to Maryland, I've had a conviction that drivers around here lack a certain perspective on their own existence. They drive like there is no higher power. When it snows, half of them drive like the roads are perfectly dry and there's nothing to worry about. The other half panic like the world is about to end. The result, of course, is total chaos. But things are different in Western New York, where I learned to drive. Snow is a fact of life and a substantial reminder of things beyond human control. You learn to drive with a healthy sense of contingency. We'll get there at such and such time--if God wills. It doesn't always go as planned.

There seems to be a broader pattern to all of this. There is an older, more traditional way of life that recognizes our place within the natural order; there is a newer, more modern view that rejects this order and seeks the control that comes from crafting our own arbitrary existence. This newer view took the lowly clock and elevated it to a sovereign role for which it was never intended. Instead of expressing the sun's time, it came to define its own time. The sun was just too irregular and too local in its effects. Factories had to run like clockwork, and trains had to keep tight schedules. Indeed, it was the railroads that pushed for, developed, and implemented what we now know as standard time. No longer could timekeeping be a merely local affair. Clocks had to be synced across the continent.

The time zones were established, but not without objection. Cities that fell between one meridian and another often balked at adjusting their time as much as a half-hour forward or backward. States were split up by time zones and proceeded to wobble back and forth. The Federal government did not step in until it also chose to impose daylight saving time during WWI, at which point it also codified standard time. DST also sparked controversy--and contrary to popular belief, it was not primarily for the benefit of farmers. They were, if anything, its most consistent opponents. Their lives operated by natural patterns that could not arbitrarily adjust back and forth each year. The main advocates of DST wanted it for recreational purposes, but it never passed into law without the conviction that it would save energy. (Energy savings is actually the hardest defense of DST to substantiate.) And that usually happened when we were at war.

So I take my stand with the more traditional way. (Surprise, surprise!) Again, I don't think it's at all likely that I'll be on solar time next week. I do, after all, have to interact with the world around me. I have to show up for work, catch buses, and even attend church according to standard and daylight time. But I'm still going to be looking for ways to take back some sanity.

One interesting thought I had as I was contemplating all this: Not so long ago, I was actually closer to practicing what I now preach (yet without any principled stance at the time). When I was in school, I kept my watch set to the bell tower at the Basilica. I have (and had) no idea what it was set to (probably standard time). But the point is that my referent was local. In a sense, it didn't matter what it was set to. It was the most prominent public timekeeper in my life, and it was enough to go by. (Admittedly, if it had been too far off from standard time, I wouldn't have used it--but that was me then.) I can't think of a similar referent in my life right now, but if I could, it just might be enough to get me wearing a watch again (instead of always going by the time on my cell phone). Which of course would be ironic in itself--another clock, to free myself from over-mechanized time.

For now, about the most I can do is find those times to ignore the clock altogether. And maybe invest in a sundial . . .

Saturday, May 17, 2008

the digital stone-age

RANT WARNING: This entire post is just me complaining. It has nothing useful to do with anything. Read at your own risk.

So, today we got a digital receiver for our TV. We have continued to watch only broadcast TV, mostly because I'm too cheap and too anti-TV to invest the money in cable or satellite. We augment the broadcast offerings with a subscription to Netflix, which includes a generous selection of TV series on disc. We also have a lot of movies and TV series available for free through the local library. To my thinking, this is more than sufficient.

Well, as hopefully everyone knows by now, in about nine months everything will change. Congress has mandated that all broadcast TV convert to digital signals, so frequencies are freed up for other uses. (Apparently, digital signals are more compact.) The newly available frequencies will be used for "public safety communications" and commercial wireless. Needless to say, they are listed in that order on the FCC's Web site. We're told that benefits will include improved clarity and expanded variety due to the opportunity for sub-channels. Our local PBS station, for instance, has already developed multiple digital sub-channels with greater programming specialization.

So what's the catch? Well, like most technological "progress," the first thing you'll notice is widespread obsolescence. There are plenty of new TVs out there with the capability to receive a digital signal, and of course those who already pay hundreds of dollars a year for cable or satellite can pretty much ignore the change. But for the countless older TVs being used to watch broadcast TV, there are only two options--buy a new one, or buy a separate digital receiver.

Not to worry--your helpful government is providing $40 coupons--two per household upon request--for the external receivers. Right now, you can easily find a receiver priced at $50, so $10 out of pocket isn't too bad. Given the benefits, what's to complain about?

Plenty. Yes, a good digital signal gives a cleaner output than a comparable analog signal. But what happens with the signal is less than perfect? With analog, you might get a fuzzy image that makes it a little hard to read print on the screen. You might even get some static in the audio that obscures quiet dialog. But you can still watch the show. With digital, you get severe pixelation, frozen picture and sound, and complete loss of the signal. Watching a show like Lost, where every detail counts, you might experience some frustration with a weak analog signal where dark scenes are a bit hard to follow. But try missing a piece of dialog because your signal faded a bit. Think, watching a scratched DVD where you finally have to give up and skip to the next scene. That's worse than just about anything you'd get with analog. Well, with the possible exception of a badly positioned antenna while taping your favorite show and finding out the static was so bad you can't hear anything. But that brings us to the next problem.

Get ready to junk your VCR. Of course, if you've already migrated to DVR, you might not have much to worry about. (I wouldn't know.) And I guess there are some newer VCR/DVD combos (you can't buy just a VCR anymore) with built-in digital receivers. But most of the stand-alone VCRs out there will become practically useless for recording programs. For starters, you can hook your receiver to your VCR (supposedly--it didn't seem to work right when I tried it), but say goodbye to taping one show while watching another. The VCR must stay parked on channel 3, while the receiver controls the actual channel. There is a work-around--buy two receivers, so you can have one on your TV and one on your VCR. I'm not sure if that means you also need two antennas, but either way, you've just used up your allotment of coupons.

Say goodbye as well to easily programmable taping of shows you can't be there to watch. You can still use your VCR's program feature to set the time to record, but remember--you can only record channel 3. The receiver needs to be set to the right channel ahead of time; although you might program the VCR to tape your favorite show every Wednesday evening, you'll need to verify every Wednesday morning or afternoon that the channel is set properly. And forget taping two shows on two different channels in the same evening if you can't be there to change the channel.

If none of that is bad enough, you will probably lose channels that you can get now. We live between Washington and Baltimore, where it is sometimes possible to get channels from both cities. Tests so far have shown that the fuzzy stations you might have got before could become non-existent. Hopefully there will be some improvement on this count. Apparently many broadcasters are waiting for the official switchover to beef up the power on their digital signals. Right now, we can't get either of the two Baltimore PBS stations, but according to Wikipedia the signal strength is pretty minimal. It's disappointing, because Ian watches a lot of PBS as it is, and we were looking forward to the better niche programming of their digital offerings. Without any signal at all, it's a deal-breaker for now. We've boxed up the receiver until February, in hopes that things will improve. For now, we'll stick with our trusty analog.

It's sad, really. Analog TV still works fine. Old VCRs still serve the purposes for which they were created. The only problem is that, in less than a year, there will be no signal to receive. I'm reminded of Ralph Nader's point that the airwaves belong to us. Somewhere along the line, we (through our elected representatives) sold them off to big corporations. Don't hold your breath for some renegade broadcaster to keep sending out analog signals for all the freedom-loving fuddy-duddies who want to receive them.

Is it a conspiracy to force more of us into buying cable or satellite service? Or is it just simple crowding of free broadcast to make way for more important things? Either way, the outcome seems to be more expensive for anyone who hasn't already chosen to pay for TV (beyond what we already pay to the manipulative advertisers). Well, there's one other group that won't be paying more--anyone who has chosen or chooses now to opt out. Your analog equipment will continue to work just fine. If you can't get a signal, so what? You can still watch VHS tapes, DVDs--heck, you can even watch Beta if that's your thing. Many of the networks are now providing current episodes online for free. If you don't mind being a year or so behind, you can watch a favorite series on video. Or you can find something more productive to do with your time than sit in front of a TV.

I don't plan to challenge anyone's right to complain about this scam. But I do offer this encouragement: You are not a slave. You still can choose. You don't have to play their game. You have nine months to think about it.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

in praise of traditional measurements

OK, I'll admit it. I swallowed a lot of liberal propaganda when I was growing up in public school. Somewhere along the way, for instance, I bought into environmentalism--even adopted my own humpback whale--then later repudiated the idea under the influence of Rush Limbaugh. I've since come back around to what is more properly labeled "conservation," which is a great conservative value (even etymologically) and resonates with my innate abhorrence of waste and the way I was brought up.

Something I accepted more wholeheartedly and never thought to repudiate until now was the metric system. My ambitions at the time were mathematical and scientific, and it did seem like a natural fit. I embraced the simplicity of the decimal base, the regularity of its fit to scientific applications, and the universality of the system. On the other hand, I guess I did come to accept that America wasn't changing anytime soon. And by that point I'd already internalized traditional America measurements. Metrics was a nice system to play around with in science classes, but since then I haven't given it much thought. I just went on with the assumption that it was better.

Well, no more! I am now decidedly pro-traditional measurements. Why? Glad you asked :-)
  • They're traditional; and, well, you should know by now how I feel about tradition. The point here is that they've been used for centuries, even millennia, and they've worked quite well. You have to ask--or at least I do--what's the compelling reason to change? (And whom does it serve to do so?)
  • They're endangered. There's been a specific campaign to abolish traditional measurements, mostly by governments and pseudo-governments that have no business in such areas anyway. The U.S. may be only one of three countries that still use traditional measurements officially (though there are plenty of others that haven't given them up altogether), but I don't see that as a bad thing. The bad thing is that so many others have caved to an artificial standard.
  • From an antiquarian perspective, traditional measurements are a whole lot more interesting. The metric system is a boring, bureaucratic standardization. Its history is the sort of thing to help with insomnia. The story of traditional measurements has twists and turns and legends and myths. What's not to like about that?
  • Traditional measurements, to a great extent, make more sense in real life. The scales fit our normal measurement needs. The units are based on familiar things to which we can relate. (Well, they would be if our culture weren't so degenerate that it no longer knows what length of furrow makes good sense with an ox-drawn plow.) But let's look at some examples.
Units of length, based on the human body:
inch = thumb width = (etymologically) 1/12 ft.
palm = hand width w/o thumb (3 in.)
hand = palm + thumb (4 in.)
span = hand width stretched out (9 in.)
foot = foot length
cubit = forearm length (18 in.)
yard = belt length (or 1/2 fathom)
fathom = armspan (6 ft.)

Of course, everyone's body is a little different, and I suppose there's something mildly sexist in the assumption that we're talking about the body of an adult male. (Though I must say, there are some women around who could squash me like a bug.) But the point is that as rough approximations, these units are pretty good. And the nice thing is, you can estimate lengths in a pinch without any ruler at all.

Units of distance, based largely on agriculture:
pace = paired marching step (5 ft.)
rod = 16 men's feet (16-1/2 ft.)
chain = 4 rods
furlong = standard plow furrow length = 10 chains
Roman mile = (etymologically) 1000 paces
English mile = 8 furlongs
league = hour's walk = 3 mi.

Now, this section needs some extra clarification. Keep in mind that standard definitions and conversions would have come later. For generations, the different units could have got along quite nicely without correlating in any precise way. Most notably, the shorter length units seem to have developed in isolation from the longer distance units, resulting in the awkward relationship between feet and rods. Also, we have a historical development from the Roman mile to various local standards. In the English system, which we adopted here, the accepted conversion came to be eight furlongs to a mile. (Eight is in fact the closest estimate, if you're going to define a mile in terms of furlongs.) The rod and chain were surveyors' tools to break down the furlong into more manageable units. As the tradition goes, you get the length of a rod by having 16 men line up their left feet. In any case, there was probably no specific concern to make the rod come out an even number of feet until much later, at which point the length was relatively stable and didn't easily fit. Not that it makes much difference--we don't have too many instances where it's even necessary to convert from the shorter inches, feet, and yards to chains, furlongs, and miles.

The etymology of "furlong" is pretty obviously the length of a standard plow furrow. This is fairly meaningless to us now (though it may not be for long, with the way fuel prices are going), but it would have been almost universally relevant for talking about land measurements up until the past century or so. Now that we mostly think of acreage as applied to suburban and exurban residential parcels, perhaps we should adjust to something specific to lawn-mowing. But sticking with the agricultural standard, the logic gets even more interesting when we turn to area measurements:

rood = furlong x rod
acre = day's plow w/two oxen = furlong x chain
subdivision = 1/4 division (40 acres)
division = 1/4 section (160 acres)
section = sq. mi. (640 acres)
township = 36 sections (6 mi. x 6 mi.)

In particular, note the definition of an acre, which becomes much more elegant once you know what a chain and a furlong are. So assuming a standard plow drawn by two yoked oxen, you'd have a parcel of land that could be done in a day. The furrows were an acceptable length, and the optimal number of passes fit into a tenth of that distance. The rood would make sense as a unit, just because you could measure the width easily with a rod. (And I suppose it might be worth knowing that it takes a quarter of a day to plow a rood--two before lunch, two after?) The rest shows a more uniquely American system, which established one-square-mile sections, divided them into quarters, then again into quarters, which is why 40 acres comes up as a basic parcel of farmland ("back 40," "40 acres and a mule," etc.). I included "township" just because I've heard the term used so often but never knew where it came from.

Units of volume, based mostly on containers:
teaspoon = teaspoon volume (1/3 T.)
tablespoon = soup spoon volume (1/2 oz.)
ounce = volume of 1 oz.-weight of water
cup = 8 oz.
pint = 2 c.
quart = 2 pints
gallon = 4 qt.
peck = 2 gal.
bushel = 4 pecks
bag = 3 bushels
barrel = 31-1/2 gal.
hogshead = 2 barrels
cord = 8' x 4' x 4'

The barrel is actually somewhat variable depending on where and what is contained. I haven't found where the term hogshead originates, but I just love the term. Which leads me, of course, to a Simpsons quote:
The metric system is the tool of the devil! My car gets forty rods to the hogshead, and that's the way I likes it.
--Abe Simpson, "A Star is Burns"
I don't expect to convince anyone; it's just my own preference. But don't be surprised if I talk about a two-quart bottle of pop instead of a 2-L bottle of soda :-)

Wednesday, April 30, 2008


I went to high school in a little blip on the map named Corfu, NY. People kept wanting to call it corfoo, but we pronounced it corfyu. It's from an Italian form, which I would now guess is supposed to be pronounced more like outsiders' initial expectation. I didn't know then that it was named after a Greek island, and still don't know now why it was named after that Greek island. (The only remark I could find about it on their Web site was that some postmaster suggested it.) It's interesting to me, nonetheless.

The original Corfu (Gk. Κέρκυρας) is off the coast, just north of modern Greece, next to Albania. The Gospel reached the island in the time of the Apostles, and it has remained predominantly Greek Orthodox down to this day. For much of its history, Corfu fell on the border of the Eastern Roman Empire and bounced back and forth between Eastern and Western control. It was saved from the Ottoman conquest by appealing to Venice for protection. There was an influx of Latins, which has left a permanent mark on the cultural landscape, but the Greeks were allowed to practice their own Christian traditions in relative freedom.

Over the centuries, several Ottoman sieges were repelled, owing at least in part to Venetian assistance; the locals, however, see another, more important cause. When Byzantium fell to the Turks, a priest who had charge of the uncorrupted relics of St. Spyridon fled to Corfu, bringing the relics with him. Ever since, St. Spyridon has been the patron and protector of Corfu; deliverance from plague and invasion has been considered a miraculous result of his intercession.

In modern times, the island fell with Venice under Western colonial rule, until it was finally given to Greece. There remains a Catholic presence on the island, but it is fairly small and generally gets along well with the Greeks. When Greece adopted the Gregorian civil calendar in the 20th c., it caused a split in Easter celebrations, but the Catholic bishop appealed to the Vatican, and they now observe the holiday with the Greeks for the sake of consistency. (Western Easter is also celebrated for the sake of visitors.)

It's interesting now to think that this little village where I went to school was named after a place of such historical significance for Greek Orthodoxy (despite having hardly any Greeks in the community). In a county that currently lacks a single Orthodox church, perhaps St. Spyridon would be a good intercessor for that to change?

Monday, April 28, 2008

PBS, eat your heart out

If you ever need to raise money to build or repair a monastery, ask the Serbs how to do it. I've seen at least two different videos from this project referenced on different Orthodox blogs. Apparently a bunch of professional musicians and performers contributed to this fund-raising effort, to restore a medieval Serbian Orthodox monastery. I don't know more than about two words in Serbian, but if I weren't already interested in Orthodoxy, I'd like to think watching these music videos would have got me interested.

I definitely recommend the one I saw referenced most recently, which features prominently the Slavonic Easter greeting: Christos Voskrese! (Christ is risen!) But as far as I'm concerned, they're all (all that I could find online anyway) worth watching.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


Well, we survived this morning's service. My Godmother Laura was a big help, watching Ian most of the time. When we got there, I figured he'd probably have a better vantage point on the baptisms from where she was standing with her kids, David and Ana. He stayed with them for the rest of the service, other than one time when he came looking for me.

Both kids decided to start the day by getting up early. Jenna was making noise before 5:00. She, Julie, and I all got up around 5:30. Ian was awake a little after 6:00. I made him stay in bed until 7:00, but he never went back to sleep. The good news is that Jenna got a good nap before we left the house around 9:30. The bad news is that she was due to eat again around the time we'd be arriving. I checked her diaper before we left but forgot to check it when we arrived. I realized after we were in the service that it was poopy, but there wasn't much to be done. Baptisms and chrismations start at the back, by the entrance, so there was no convenient way to get out. She didn't seem to mind, so we waited it out until after the chrismations--about half an hour. I took her downstairs, changed her, came back up, and hung out a bit longer until she got really irritable about not eating. By that point, I'd lost my seat anyway, and it was getting crowded in that section. So I grabbed everything and went back downstairs to give her a bottle.

She ate quite well. We weren't sure how she'd do. She hasn't typically nursed much for Julie during services. It had been about five hours since her last feeding (quite a bit longer than she normally goes), so she may just have been extremely hungry. Or maybe it's easier for her to take a bottle with distractions. In any case, she ate all six ounces that I made. Ian came down to see what I was up to, but I sent him back to stay with Laura. He stayed with her the rest of the service. After I came back up, we also went over by Laura, so I could help keep an eye on Ian. Also, I figured she was probably more interested in holding Jenna than watching one more active little boy.

Jenna did OK for a while, but she started to get sleepy around the middle of the service, so I took her to the back of the room, hoping she would sleep in her car seat. No such luck. I think she might be coming to the end of doing that sort of thing. Earlier this week, at our small group study, she kept puling the blanket down when she was supposed to be sleeping. She'd end up crying, all hot and sweaty. She was doing the same thing today. With the warmer weather and her more active, I don't think it's going to be as easy. She wouldn't go to sleep in my arms, either, so I took her out into the narthex to get away from some of the noise. She calmed down but still wasn't interested in sleeping. I let her scoot around a bit on the floor, then took her back into the service and let her roll in the back. She had fun playing with the bay leaves Fr. Gregory had scattered around. Eventually, she got irritable again; the service was almost over anyway, so I took her downstairs and fed her solids. We were wrapping up by the time others came down.

She melted down pretty quickly after that. When I was cleaning up, someone asked to hold her. I warned them that she was close to her limit, and sure enough, she melted down pretty soon after that. At least I was able to get everything together, scarf down some food, and round up the kids. She's sleeping now, hopefully for another good nap. Ian did OK, aside from constantly bugging Ana. He got upset at the very end, when he wanted to go over to David's house, and we had to explain that today everyone's too busy.

The service was quite good. It might not have actually been the longest liturgy of the year. Maybe it was anyway, but I did notice we skipped some of the (something like 15) Old Testament readings, including the entire book of Jonah. There were two baptisms and one chrismation--a couple (he was already baptized, she apparently wasn't) and a new baby from another family. I'd never seen a baby baptized there before. He seems to have a good technique. He gets the baby balanced just right and then skims it through the water three times, going in all the way, but coming out very quickly each time. He cried for a few seconds afterward, but settled down pretty quickly.

I had to eat so quickly, I didn't get anything to drink. Traditionally, Holy Saturday doesn't have an actual meal. In earlier times, this service would have started later in the day and been followed by a reading of the book of Acts until the Pascha Vigil. There would be a short break to distribute nuts, dried fruit, and wine for some energy to sustain everyone through to the end. We do this service earlier in the day and skip the reading of Acts, but we still eat the traditional snack. I didn't have time to drink anything there, but I finished it out with a beer when I got home. I wasn't planning on taking a nap, but now I feel like maybe I should. If I'm feeling this sleepy already, what will it be like at 4:00 a.m.?

I probably won't blog again today. A blessed Pascha to all.

Friday, April 25, 2008

let us be attentive!

We tend to schedule out the Orthodox services I will attend pretty far in advance. Usually, at the beginning of each month, I send Julie a list of what's coming, my preferences, etc., and we try to line things up with both our schedules. Of course, this month has a lot more services to manage than most, since it includes Holy Week. I don't try to attend everything (though it would be nice), but I try to catch the highlights, especially incorporating services I've never attended before or haven't attended recently. This year, I finally get to attend the Lamentations service in the evening. It was my first service at Holy Cross, three years ago. Joel, the only Orthodox person I knew at the time, invited me to come along with him. It's a beautiful and moving service, but I haven't been able to line things up to attend since.

I would also have liked to attend vespers this afternoon, when the icon of Christ is taken down from the cross. But Jenna has a doctor's appointment that conflicts, so instead I dragged Ian to the Royal Hours this morning. His behavior wasn't perfect, but I had to give him kudos anyway. If you don't know, the Royal Hours consist of four services combined--first, third, six, and ninth hours, which were designed to stand alone throughout the day, especially in monasteries. These days, even monasteries tend to skip or contract them. In Russian churches, I believe the vigil service ends with the first hour and liturgy is preceded by the third hour. But in a lot of parish settings, they only make an occasional appearance, before the greatest of the feast days, when they're combined like this into one long service. There's nothing particularly dramatic or exciting about them, either. They're intended to be quiet breaks of contemplation throughout the day, and stringing them all together doesn't change the mood much. For a kid who struggles to stay in his seat from start to finish of family dinner time, one such hour would be hard enough--two is pretty taxing.

I'm still learning how to interest my son in spiritual things, and I know his experience of worship is still mostly "waiting it out." But today I think I learned an important lesson. As usual, he asked me periodically through the service, "Are we almost done?" I realized part-way through that, if I'd taken more initiative, and if he had a little bit better capacity to follow my explanations, I might have explained to him in advance that the service consisted of four cycles, and he could get a good sense of how much longer we had by counting those cycles and paying attention to what happened when. It would have gone over his head, but as a secondary application, I decided that when he asked during the ninth hour part, "Are we almost done?" I would give him an answer that would hopefully get him to pay some kind of attention. So I said, "After the priest reads from his big Bible again, we'll be almost done."

Of course, I suspected that that "almost" would be an Orthodox "almost." It's a common joke that "let us complete our prayer unto the Lord" means the service is maybe 15-20 min. from winding down. I didn't have a service book to look at, but I figured the ninth hour couldn't be too much longer than the others. It did, in fact, have extra stuff at the end, which forced him to ask me a couple more times if we were (really) almost done. But he was definitely more attentive to the Gospel reading in that last cycle than in any of the others, or for that matter, in most other services he attends. Granted, he was paying attention because he wanted to know when he could get out of there; but for now I'll take what I can get.

Incidentally, at the last minute, I had decided to attend the service at St. Matthew's instead of Holy Cross. Julie was kind of floored yesterday by how much it cost to fill up the car, and I think we were both looking for ways to minimize driving. I consider it a form of offering to drive back and forth to Linthicum so many times this week, but it still seemed like attending at least one service close by would help break things up a bit. Plus, I had to take time off of work to attend, and the less I consumed with travel time, the less leave I'd have to use. In any case, I'm glad I did. Attending a service like that in the middle of the day, I'd just be running in and running back out anyway. More to the point, it was perhaps the most moving, impressive experience I've had at St. Matthew's.

I don't know what it was--maybe my own spiritual condition, maybe the different feel of having such a small group present. (Hours services tend to be sparsely attended.) Maybe the experience of attending an "off" service at St. Matthew's. (In my experience, they have mostly done Sunday morning liturgy only; Lent and Holy Week constitute a general exception, but other than Sunday of Orthodoxy, I think this was my first time attending anything out of the normal routine.) Whatever it was, I was glad to be there. I have to admit that I did not stay focused on what was going on in the service 100% of the time, but what I mostly remember being distracted by was contemplating how helpful the experience was for my attitude. I can sometimes get a little uppity about parishes like St. Matthew's, where the clergy wear suits and collars, the chairs obstruct proper bowing, the liturgical schedule is thin, etc. It was a good dose of humility to realize there's more there than I give them credit for.

I've got about an hour and a half before I have to leave for the Lamentations service. Next up after that, Vesperal Liturgy at Holy Cross tomorrow morning. (The services of Holy Week tend to run ahead of schedule. You get Matins in the evening and Vespers in the morning. It's like we just can't wait to get to Pascha.) This is the big day for baptisms and chrismations. Lent was historically a preparation for catechumens anticipating baptism right before Pascha. So between that, the blessing of bread and wine at the end, the fact that it's vespers and liturgy combined, and St. Basil's liturgy no less--I read today that it's the longest Divine Liturgy of the year. (Speaking here just of the liturgy itself. The Pascha Vigil will be longer, but that's because you've got three or four services together.) And what am I doing? I'm bringing both kids by myself! Should be exciting. I haven't done that since shortly after Jenna was born, when Julie was laid up at home from her gall bladder surgery. This was the only way I could make it--Julie's going to a nearly new sale, and I would normally be staying home with the kids. Fortunately, she can ride with a friend, so at least I have transportation. Now let's see if I can "take no thought for any earthly thing when the time comes . . . "

Thursday, April 24, 2008

evangelical Bible-thumpers

Last night was my first time witnessing the sacrament of holy unction. (In the Orthodox Church, what RCs often know as "extreme unction" is actually available many times throughout life, for both physical and spiritual healing.) It is commonly administered to anyone who wants to receive it, the Wednesday before Easter.

I don't know how it's done in more isolated applications, but in this service, it begins with the chanting of a canon, followed by 14 Scripture readings--seven from the Epistles and seven from the Gospels, alternating along with seven prayers. I suppose it probably seems long and repetitive to anyone who's not used to "liturgical" services. (Our service was a concise two-hours-and-ten-minutes.) At the conclusion, the faithful kneel under the upraised Gospel book, which is held open, pages facing down over their heads, while the priest prays. Then, one by one, they are anointed with oil, again coming under the Gospel book.

I guess some people think that Orthodox don't give enough attention to the Bible. They put too much emphasis on Tradition, they don't do enough personal reading, etc. But it's a tough accusation to substantiate. Their treatment of the Bible is certainly different from Protestant expectations. But to call it a de-emphasis of Scripture misses the point. Last night was, in a sense, a warm-up for tonight's reading of the Passion Gospels, in which the accounts of Christ's sufferings and death will be read from all four Gospels, with the faithful kneeling for each extended reading. There's a lot of Scripture reading in Orthodox public worship, and a lot of context for that reading. No one had to explain last night that unction is for both physical and spiritual healing--it's obvious from the selection of readings. And in general, if you pay attention to what passages are used and how and when, you start to see a lot of connections between the biblical text and the substance of faith and practice. Often, too, there will be accompanying icons and actions; there is extensive quoting from and allusion to Scripture in Orthodox hymns; often the point of the sermon is to tie it all together and make explicit what is otherwise implicit.

Orthodox bow when the Gospels are carried into the nave, when they are opened to read, when they are closed at the end. The book sits enthroned on the altar whenever it is not in use. It is venerated during the Orthros service. It is used in situations like holy unction to convey the presence of Christ in the midst of his people. The Gospel is laid on the head of the person in need of healing, and the priest lays his hands on the Gospel. It is Christ, first and foremost, who heals; the priest is just there to do the leg-work. Similarly, the Gospel is laid across the neck of a bishop at his consecration. No one's ever explained to me why that is, but I can guess that at least some of it is to show the burden he is taking up as one with primary responsibility to convey the Word of God to his people. It also shows that Christ's yoke is on him, and Christ is the one laying hands on him, blessing him for the work of leadership.

There is no question in Orthodoxy of the divinity of Scripture, of its power for salvation, of its inspiration by God, its truth, its status as God's Word. Scripture is woven throughout all of the Church's worship and is regularly referred to as the standard for the lives of the faithful. It is integral to the authority of the priests and bishops and essential for the Church's gathering as the Church. If that's not evangelical (centered on the Gospel), what is?

As a side note, Orthodox seminarians are currently attempting to hand out 400,000 booklets of the Gospel of Mark in Moscow subway stations during Holy Week.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

for those who missed it

Esteban comments on my post "into the splendor of Thy Saints . . . ":
Glory to God! These are wonderful news. Imagine: to receive the perfecting Grace of Baptism through the seal of the Holy Spirit on the very day on which He, like a mighty rushing wind, was poured on all flesh! Please let us know in time which name you will be given so that we all may pray for you by name at the Services after Pentecost.
I agree--it's a great day for it. Pascha would be the ultimate, but since he just made the decision, I'm guessing he didn't want to rush things. An interesting note here. A couple of years back, when I moved into a newly renovated space at work, I had these shelves that weren't good for much of anything "practical." I deduced that they were for such things as pictures and knick-knacks, so I ordered a few icons to put there. I needed four to get a shipping break; I knew I wanted a Pantokrator, a Theotokos, and St. Michael. (At the time, I was exploring just sticking with my middle name for a patron saint; plus, St. Michael is just a cool icon to have in any case.) For the fourth, I went with one that was on sale, figuring I'd eventually collect the Great Feasts anyway. As you might have guessed by now, it was the icon of Pentecost. Some of the others have found homes elsewhere, but that one still watches over my office. I was never quite sure why. ("It was on sale" didn't seem like a reason.) Now I guess I know.

As for your request, some time ago I found St. Peter the Aleut, or perhaps he found me. In any case, there seems to be a consensus among my priest, my Godfather, and this poor sinner. Follow the link (and subsequent links), if you feel like reading my thoughts on this subject over the years.

into the splendor of Thy Saints . . .

. . . how shall I who am unworthy enter? For if I dare to enter the bridechamber, my vesture betrays me, for it is not a wedding garment, and as a prisoner I shall be cast out by the Angels. Cleanse my soul from pollution and save me, O Lord, in Thy love for men.

After three years of waiting here on the doorstep, I've finally been invited to come inside! Now the only question is, can I get beyond trembling at the threshold? Fr. Gregory has proposed Pentecost for my chrismation. I'd grown so used to being told "not yet," that his "yes" really caught me off guard. There was joy in my initial reaction, but the dominant response was probably terror. In a way, it's good that he told me now. I think I can finish Lent and Holy Week with the proper perspective. Contemplating my own death doesn't inspire enough fear to make me truly repentant, but apparently the thought of approaching the mysteries does the trick.

More details as they become available. For now, here's St. Symeon the New Theologian's pre-communion prayer, which expresses what I'm feeling a lot better than I can:
From sullied lips,
From an abominable heart,
From an unclean tongue,
Out of a polluted soul,
Receive my prayer, O my Christ.
Reject me not,
Nor my words, nor my ways,
Nor even my shamelessness,
But give me courage to say
What I desire, my Christ.
And even more, teach me
What to do and say.
I have sinned more than the harlot
Who, on learning where Thou wast lodging,
Bought myrrh,
And dared to come and anoint
Thy feet, my Christ,
My Lord and my God.
As Thou didst not repulse her
When she drew near from her heart,
Neither, O Word, abominate me,
But grant me Thy feet
To clasp and kiss,
And with a flood of tears
As with most precious myrrh
Dare to anoint them.
Wash me with my tears
And purify me with them, O Word.
Forgive my sins
And grant me pardon.
Thou knowest the multitude of my evil-doings,
Thou knowest also my wounds,
And Thou seest my bruises.
But also Thou knowest my faith,
And Thou beholdest my willingness,
And Thou hearest my sighs.
Nothing escapes Thee, my God,
My Maker, my Redeemer,
Not even a tear-drop,
Nor part of a drop.
Thine eyes know
What I have not achieved,
And in Thy book
Things not yet done
Are written by Thee.
See my depression,
See how great is my trouble,
And all my sins
Take from me, O God of all,
That with a clean heart,
Trembling mind
And contrite spirit
I may partake of Thy pure
And all-holy Mysteries
By which all who eat and drink Thee
With sincerity of heart
Are quickened and deified.
For Thou, my Lord, hast said:
"Whoever eats My Flesh
And drinks My Blood
Abides in Me
And I in Him."
Wholly true is the word
Of my Lord and God.
For whoever partakes of Thy divine
And deifying Gifts
Certainly is not alone,
But is with Thee, my Christ,
Light of the Triune Sun
Which illumines the world.
And that I may not remain alone
Without Thee, the Giver of Life,
My Breath, my Life,
My Joy,
The Salvation of the world,
Therefore I have drawn near to Thee
As Thou seest, with tears
And with a contrite spirit.
Ransom of my offences,
I beseech Thee to receive me,
And that I may partake without condemnation
Of Thy life-giving and perfect Mysteries,
That Thou mayest remain as Thou hast said
With me, thrice-wretched as I am,
Lest the tempter may find me
Without Thy grace
And craftily seize me,
And having deceived me, may seduce me,
From Thy deifying words.
Therefore I fall at Thy feet
And fervently cry to Thee:
As Thou receivedst the Prodigal
And the Harlot who drew near to Thee,
So have compassion and receive me,
The profligate and the prodigal,
As with contrite spirit
I now draw near to Thee.
I know, O Saviour, that no other
Has sinned against Thee as I,
Nor has done the deeds
That I have committed.
But this again I know
That not the greatness of my offences
Nor the multitude of my sins
Surpasses the great patience
Of my God,
And His extreme love for men.
But with the oil of compassion
Those who fervently repent
Thou dost purify and enlighten
And makest them children of the light,
Sharers of Thy Divine Nature.
And Thou dost act most generously,
For what is strange to Angels
And to the minds of men
Often Thou tellest to them
As to Thy true friends.
These things make me bold, my Christ,
These things give me wings,
And I take courage from the wealth
Of Thy goodness to us.
And rejoicing and trembling at once,
I who am straw partake of fire,
And, strange wonder!
I am ineffably bedewed,
Like the bush of old
Which burnt without being consumed.
Therefore with thankful mind,
And with thankful heart,
And with thankfulness in all the members
Of my soul and body,
I worship and magnify
And glorify Thee, my God,
For Thou art blessed,
Now and throughout the ages.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

we have movement!

Figured we'd try out the video component on our rather old, rather cheap digital camera. We have a camcorder, but it's also old, from back when it was the decidedly more affordable option to get analog. Jenna's taken right off with a lot of her motor skills in the past few days. She's clapping and waving, feeding herself snack puffs, and monumentally--she's ambulatory! (Does that have to mean walking, or is any form of propulsion sufficient?) You can't see it in this brief clip, but she can make a full circuit of the room (or at least the open area), just by rolling. She does get a little hung up sometimes when she reaches a corner, but that shouldn't take long to sort out. Anyway, enough yappin'--here she is!

Friday, April 11, 2008

does this mean they're OK for Lent?

"There's very little meat in these gym mats."

--Lunch Lady Doris
"The PTA Disbands"
The Simpsons

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

monasticism in the 21st century

This is more than seven years old, but still quite good I think. Mother Ephrosynia discusses the point of monasticism in our (post)modern age.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Where are the American saints?

A couple of things I've come across recently have got me thinking again about the American saints. There are about a dozen recognized saints associated significantly with the territory of North America. Of these, most were immigrants from Russia or Eastern Europe. Only two were born and died on the continent (both Alaskan); one (Varnava of Hvosno) was born in the contiguous U. S. (Gary, IN) but left as a child, never to return. About half a dozen others were born elsewhere but died here.

Although many of them were not ethnically Russian, all but two of the American saints belonged to the Russian Orthodox Church. For the sake of convenience, we could divide the American saints into three periods:
  • the foundation, from the start of the Russian mission in 1794 to the departure of St. Innocent in 1867
  • the zenith, from the arrival of St. Alexis in 1889 to the death of St. Raphael in 1915
  • the struggle, from St. Nikolai's first visit in 1915 to the death of St. John in 1966
Naturally, the first stage would be exclusively Russian, because it falls during the time when the Russian church was planting Orthodoxy on American soil. Russian dominance in the second stage also makes sense, though I guess there are some who argue that by this point Greek Orthodoxy already had an independent existence in America. In the third stage, there's not much to show in any case, but we have two Serbians--one going, one coming--and another Russian.

In the first two periods, there were almost always multiple saints at any given time. In the foundation period:
  • 1794-96 St. Herman and St. Juvenaly
  • 1802-16 St. Herman, St. Peter, and St. Jacob
  • 1816-23 St. Herman and St. Jacob
  • 1823-37 St. Herman, St. Jacob, and St. Innocent
  • 1837-64 St. Jacob and St. Innocent
In the zenith period, the concentration was even higher:
  • 1895-1898 St. Alexis, St. John, St. Alexander, and St. Raphael
  • 1898-1907 St. Alexis, St. John, St. Alexander, St. Raphael, and St. Tikhon
  • 1907-1909 St. Alexis, St. Alexander, and St. Raphael
  • 1909-1914 St. Alexander and St. Raphael
Of course, everything changed with the Russian Civil War (1917-22). Around this period, we have the three brief visits of St. Nikolai to America (1915, 1921, 1927) and the American childhood of St. Varnava (b. 1914). After WWII, St. Nikolai spent the last decade of his life in America, from 1945 to 1956. Finally, St. John of Shanghai arrived in San Francisco in 1962 and reposed in 1966. From a high point of five saints at the turn of the century, we've seen more than 90 years in which only two saints lived here as adults, one of them for four years, the other for 11. From the standpoint of the chaotic condition of Russian Orthodoxy during this period, the dearth makes a fair amount of sense; but does it in any way indicate an American Church that is ready to stand on its own?

Various groups argue that our fate has long been detached from that of the Russian Church. But where are the Greek saints? Where the Arab? Where the distinctively American? Should we really care which group is the largest, or the fastest growing, or the most at home in American culture? Should we ascribe weight to claims of universal jurisdiction? What would it mean to follow this strategy: the Church in America is founded on her saints; when those saints are distinctively American, she will be ready to run her own affairs. It is also interesting to consider that, in the age of ecumenism, the saints we see in America (and, I have heard, the saints in historically Orthodox lands) have been anti-ecumenist. Indeed, when we turn to the third period, it may well be that the forces of ecumenism have been at least partially responsible for the dismal numbers.

Now, I'm not saying that any of this is terribly conclusive. I set out mostly to get a clearer picture in my own mind of when the saints lived, where their lives coincided, and what any of this might show us about Orthodoxy in America. And I doubt that there's anything profound here. I'm sure plenty of people before me have seen these trends. They don't say much in themselves, without some kind of interpretation of what's going on. Is it the fragmenting of Orthodoxy in America that has caused the lack of saints (or perhaps vice versa)? Is it ecumenism? The New Calendar? The loss of Russian leadership? A general apostasy? I'm hardly the person to say what caused what. But it does seem to me like we should pause over these trends. In a century when the Old World has seen the ranks of its saints swell with new martyrs, American Orthodoxy has offered very little. I don't want to wholly discount whatever benefit we have experienced here from relative religious freedom; but when we leave things like saints and monastics out of the equation, are we perhaps adopting the wrong standards by which to measure maturity?

Sunday, March 30, 2008

suit up!

Maybe there is some hope that Ian's friend David can rub off on him in a positive way. His lesson on quiet signals during church didn't seem to take, but it looks like the wardrobe is showing some promise. With his well-placed hand-me-down jacket, when David says to "suit up," Ian will be ready! Now we just need to get him to take more interest in the service, stop harassing Mommy, obey when we give him directions . . . but the clothes make the man, right?

Friday, March 14, 2008

get in shape, the Orthodox way!

You too can get in shape, with our patented, simple regimen:
  1. Don't eat anything. Don't drink anything either, if it can be avoided.
  2. Spend a couple of hours each night in church,
    • standing more or less continually (no whining about feeling weak from #1)
    • prostrating often (ditto)
    • bowing to the floor incessantly (what, you were already feeling light-headed?)
    • singing almost non-stop (dry throat? what dry throat?)
  3. Also extend your private prayer times at home, with any or all of the elements from #2.
  4. Which means, of course, that you should be getting less sleep. (Feeling drowsy? Try standing . . . or bowing . . . or prostrating . . . )
  5. Oh, you can eat on Wednesday night, but late, and you'll need two services to make up for it. And don't eat too much (not that you can, with a stomach shrunken from three days without food and a throat so dry that well-cooked pasta can feel like broken glass).
  6. Don't worry--it gets much better after the first week (seriously).
I say this, knowing myself to be a world-class wuss (huh--no flags in the spell-checker on that word), who didn't make it the full three days without food, who attended only one service all week and still fidgeted, rolled my feet on their sides to ease the soreness, and had to resist looking at my watch. But what's the point of having standards, if they don't give you something to work up to, right?

I also say it, wishing I could have done more with the first week of Lent. I discovered that I have too much anger. (This is one of my favorite scenes from the Joan Cusack movie High Fidelity. [PROFANITY WARNING: There are a few instances of the dreaded f-word in this clip; if that bothers you, don't play it.]

While it didn't go anywhere near as far into absurdity, I had my own mock confrontation play out in my head earlier this week, which I suppose wasn't anything terribly new, but it surprised me to realize it had happened.) G. I. Joe used to say, "Knowing is half the battle," but I'm not sure I've moved on to the other half.

I also wish I could have prayed more, been in more services, paid more attention to the needs of those around me, etc. Five more weeks to get it right, I guess.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Moscow Patriarchate endorses the Simpsons

Interfax quotes Moscow Patriarchate spokesman Fr. Mikhail Prokopenko:
I would not say that absolutely all cartoons shown on 2x2 are immoral and offensive. In fact, some of the cartoons shown there can even be called Christian and promoting family values - take, for instance, The Simpsons, a cartoon series that I, for one, really like.
Finally! Vindication from an official religious body. This is what I've been harping on for years. I knew there was something I liked about this Church :-)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Wurmbrand on Orthodoxy

Funny how things come at once. I posted yesterday on Fr. George Calciu's remark about American Christians. This morning I listened to Kh. Frederica''s podcast about another clergyman who suffered under the Communist persecution in Romania--Richard Wurmbrand, a Jewish convert and Lutheran pastor. Wurmbrand will be known to many Evangelical readers as the author of Tortured for Christ, about his experience in Romania, and the founder of Voice of the Martyrs--a publication that brings to light the continuing experiences of Christians under persecution around the world. Here, the tables are turned, and Wurmbrand--who remained a Protestant until his death in 2001--comments on his experience with Eastern Orthodox Christians.

Most of the material in the podcast comes from a pair of Again articles that can be downloaded in a Word doc from Ancient Faith Radio, or read online here and here. The first article refers to a recorded conversation between Hieromonks Damascene and Gerasim of St. Herman Monastery in Platina, CA, Mother Nina, and Pastor Wurmbrand; the podcast contains clips from that recording, including Wurmbrand singing his own arrangement of "Ave Maria" in English and Hebrew.

Wurmbrand speaks with respect of the Orthodox individuals he met, and the monks speak with respect as well of their encounter with him. His stories of these Orthodox confessors are touching and should encourage Orthodox and Protestants alike.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Calciu on America

I just got the July-August 2007 issue of The Orthodox Word. (I recently subscribed, so I don't know if they're just behind schedule or still sending me free back issues.) This issue is devoted to Fr. George Calciu, of blessed memory--a Romanian confessor who suffered under Communist persecution and died a little over a year ago of pancreatic cancer. I never met Fr. George, but he was the spiritual father of my spiritual father and of some of my friends. For the last several years of his life, he pastored a Romanian parish in Northern Virginia. I can't recall exactly if I've ever heard the term "saint" applied to Fr. George, but the sentiment seems to be there in those who knew him.

The issue contains two previously unpublished talks by Fr. George, as well as a brief biography and an account of his final days. There's a lot of good material here, but I thought the last paragraph, from a Q&A session that followed his talk on "The Inner Church" (2001), was particularly noteworthy. After describing France as a "lost country," he continues:
When I returned to America from France, I took a cab from the airport to my house, and the driver started to talk to me about God, about the Bible. In shops people often start talking to me about God, about the Bible. As long as simple people speak about God, as long as simple people read the Bible, America is saved. For despite all the mistakes America has made, despite the war against Yugoslavia, despite all the killings of people, despite everything, America is blessed by God--not because Clinton or another president says, "God bless America," but because of these simple people who speak of God, worship God, read the Bible, and preserve America against every evil and every attack of the devil.
I should add that Fr. George in his other talk does not shy away from criticizing "the invasion of American and Protestant-style 'evangelization'" in Romania. He is no ecumenist, and he clearly sees Protestantism as deficient, if not at times downright anti-Christian. But note the contrast when it comes to talking about American people, most of whom are not Orthodox. He does not say they are perfect, he does not say their theology is altogether right, he does not say they have nothing important to learn. But he does say that they are good, that they have faith, that they genuinely worship God, and that they are instrumental in the spiritual war. And all this, without being Orthodox!

I don't know where we would be without persecution in the world, because it seems that without it we would lack the perspective of those, like Fr. George, who have walked through the very depths of hell. Persecution solidified his faith into something that could not keep silent (so much so, that he was re-imprisoned and after Western pressure was exiled from his homeland), but it also softened his heart toward broken humanity. Here was a man who learned to love his God-hating torturers; it does not seem so surprising that he could also see in the "simple people" of America a goodness and genuine spirit that survives, even amidst sectarianism, heresy, and imperialism. I know I, for one, need voices like his to remind me every now and then.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

" . . . and call him George"

I've long used a vaguely-remembered quote from Looney Tunes to harass Ian. It's about the only memorable line from Marvin the Martian's abominable snowman Hugo, which is better watched in context than written out. If you want to skip to the relevant part, start around 3:30:

You have my permission to use it with your loved ones as well!

Thursday, February 28, 2008


Holy Cross does a monthly Paraklesis service (similar to a Moleben in the Russian tradition), which for those who don't know is an Orthodox supplication service. Now, for my Evangelical friends, don't expect to walk in and find people sitting around, sharing requests and then breaking up into small groups for extemporaneous prayer. We'll pray for specific people (from requests circulated daily on the parish e-mail list and weekly in the bulletin), but we assume that God knows at least as much as we do about their situations. So the prayer is light on details, heavy on context.

"Concise Orthodox service" is a Googlenope, a term coined by columnist Gene Weingarten for a phrase that does not register any hits if you Google it in quotes. (Of course, once you've identified a Googlenope online, it ceases to be one.) So it should come as no surprise that we spend an hour singing about our general human plight before God, and then the priest rattles through a long list of names. I never get the impression that this belittles their needs or anyone else's. It's sort of like the guys who brought the paralytic to Jesus and had to lower him down through the roof. They had to get a group together, somehow climb up on the roof, open up a hole, lower him down--a lot of hard work, it seems to me. But when everything was done, it was a simple act of laying their friend at Jesus's feet. They didn't have to explain anything, didn't have to make any eloquent speeches. The need was as obvious to him as it was to them, and their faith and love were obvious too. In prayer, we come before God's throne. We prostrate, we invoke the saints, we acknowledge our sin--and when all is said and done, we lay down our friends and neighbors and trust God to act.

I find it to be a very moving service, and I love when I get to attend. Last week, unexpectedly they scheduled an extra Paraklesis instead of the usual weekday Vespers. It happened to be a night when I was going anyway, so I could hear the talk afterward. If it wasn't enough that I got to attend, they decided to record the service and put it online. Kudos to Reader Ben for that! Now I can pray the service more often (with others is better, but I'll take what I can get), and hopefully learn the words and music more thoroughly. I've thought before that it would be nice to have some of the regular services recorded. Ideally, you learn it by attending; but for those of us who can't attend as often as we'd like, it's a nice alternative.

So I'm pretty psyched. I guess that makes me weird, but oh well . . .

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

nothing new under the sun

After we screwed up Ian's hair, I told Julie that it just looked like one of those old, wide middle parts that you see in pictures of people from the 19th and early 20th centuries. When we were visiting my aunt this weekend, she showed us a bunch of pictures she'd salvaged from my grandpa's house, including this one of Great-Grandpa Peterson:

Ian saw it and said, "That looks like my hair!" My point exactly.