During a time when it seemed like everything was changing, God broke through with a challenge: to see if the light from the East was brighter than our Protestant upbringing. This is a live chronicle of our family's exploration of Orthodoxy.
It is with eagerness, and a healthy dose of apprehension, that we can announce our upcoming christmation. On New Year's Day, surrounded by family and friends, we will, officially, at last, join the Orthodox Church. We continue to ask for your prayers as we get used to our new life.
Thank you for journeying with us!
There has been some hubbub of late regarding today, May 21st. The "rapture" was supposed to happen, according to Harold Camping [currently, his website is down] and his strange reading of (or reading into) scripture. When I first heard about this a number of weeks ago, I was intrigued. I never believed that he was right, but I did realize something important: it didn't matter. Over this past year, Peter and I have taken a number of significant steps to order our lives according to how Christ is calling us to live. We're becoming Orthodox, we're paying off our debts, we moved across the country and have trusted him for everything from the roof over our heads to the food in our mouths. Through it all, we have stumbled and tripped toward the path He laid out for us and I have to think (hope, pray) that if He were to return today, He would find us working for Him. I'm not afraid to die, to be raptured or to have the world end. I know that if and when it does happen, I'll be excited (albeit nervous) to see my Lord because I have tried to faithfully do His work (though often asking for forgiveness when I mess it up). I think that's the best anyone can do.
As my last post was mutually unsatisfying, I feel like I now have something to say: Christ is risen! We've been teaching AJ to say it and how to respond. Often she returns with one or the other: "Christ is risen!" or "Indeed He is risen!" while throwing herself to the floor or into my shoulder or speaking into her hands. Sometimes she says things like "I love you, too" or "Happy birthday!"-- it just kind of depends on what strikes her in the moment.
What she does understand is the excitement that is being communicated through those words (which is why I think "happy birthday" was her first default). Whenever she hears the priest begin the service by reciting the Paschal troparion in his opening prayers she always repeats the phrase (quite loudly sometimes) "Christ is risen from the dead!" over and over again, grinning from ear to ear. It's beautiful. It's radiant. It's such a challenge as a dad, too--we are in church after all, aren't you supposed to be quiet in church? Her excitement and exuberance in worship can be a little embarrassing, but how do you look into those bright eyes and that glowing smile so full of resurrection joy and tell her to keep quiet?
Felicity and I have been re-reading the New Testament together. We've gone through Matthew and Mark so far, and I find myself being caught by the stories of children and their role in teaching adults about the Kingdom of God. St. Mark records Jesus as saying, "Truly I tell you , anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it."Now that I have a little child, I think I better understand what that means.
AJ beckons me into prayer. There are times when she leads me into God's presence asking "Whose that guy?" in her loudest two-year-old voice and pointing at the priest, deacon, choir director, reader, icon, or whatever has sparked her curiosity. Just this evening as we sat in the church to celebrate the vigil of mid-Pentecost, she looked up at the huge icon of the Sign and said, "Icon up there! Theotokos up there!" as Br. S. was reading the Epistle for the night. I wanted to tell her to be quiet, but I had to follow her little finger as she kept pointing saying, "Jesus up there! Crosses up there, too!" Truly this is the what it means to receive the Kingdom as a child: to see God and to give Him worship through your love and devotion.
I have learned so much this past year, but nothing prepared me for what my little girl would teach me these past few weeks since Pascha. My heart rejoices as she sings the Paschal hymns and says "Christ is risen!" with a shake of her blond head and her vibrant smile. May I be given the grace to learn more from her what it is to embrace the Kingdom of God and to live fully in it every day again and fresh like a little child: without fear, without shame, but caught in the abundance of God's love for me and my family and this world.
We were in North Carolina for Holy Week and Pascha this year; and our trip back plus getting back into the swing of what you might call "normal" life if you lived in an amusement park, has kept us from the blogosphere for the last couple of weeks. Our lives have been slightly topsy-turvy as we look towards the summer and our impending Chrismation over Christmas. I'm not really even sure this is how this year is going to work out in that direction, but we are coming along.
Holy Week back in our old parish was a wonderful experience! We were welcomed back with open arms and a place in the choir! We sang until our throats were horse and celebrated our Lord's passion and sacrificial love with dear friends and family. I had my semi-regular "argument" with my parents about how I am "betraying" my upbringing in Traditional Protestantism (their words) and clinging to the "trappings" and "traditions of men" and that the Apostle Paul never taught anyone to kiss a picture. I'm really praying that they're willing to come to the baptisms/chrismations this year without too much hoopla beforehand.
Short but sweet this time round. Felicity will be back with a post coming up next week.
Sunday was our first opportunity to go to church with the bishop present. It wasn't a full hierarchical liturgy, but there was something truly wonderful about the whole experience. We've been attending another small parish about 45 minutes away (everything from here is about 45 minutes away) on occasional Sundays to be a) not the youngest people b) not the only family with small children and c) not the only converts. Though I'm not sure how well we do on the last front, we're definitely in good with the other two! Lots of little kids very close to AJ and Christine's ages and lots of younger couples, older couples, a monastic. It's a good parish.
Sunday the bishop was going to be at church. I've been to one other hierarchical liturgy before, but never as someone who could be called a regular attender, catechumen, or any other official category in Orthodoxy. Observer, maybe; but nothing deeper or more profound than an outsider looking in at all of the proceedings. When we arrived he was already vested and performing the necessary prayers and services for the proskomedia. If I hadn't known what he looked like, I would have assumed there was a visiting priest. Though there were a few extra tidbits to the service, the whole experience was like having a loving friend, father, or close relative serving alongside the normal priest and presiding over the service. Something truly Christlike and incarnational even with long purple robes and a crown. There was no pretense, no extra fanfare. For a very nervous newbie, this was the type of service to see.
When he went around to our table he simply shook hands with us, blessed our girls, and simply congratulated us on being catechumens. What I want to focus on is the way he loved on our little girls. Placing his wooden panagia on the heads of our daughters, blessing them and praying over them with such tenderness that I still choke up. A true shepherd and father of the flock of Christ. I felt truly blessed to be able to spend just a few minutes of time with him. I felt this must be what it was like when parents brought their children to Our Lord so that He could bless them. The joy and (dare I say) relief that they felt when He picked them up and poured His love onto them.
Thank you, your grace, for the love you showed our girls. Thank you for the love your showed our family. Pray for us as we pray for you.
At our parish we celebrate the (truncated) Liturgy of St. James during Lent. I had always heard that this was the great-granddaddy of all liturgical experiences. Six hours. Only performed once a year. True dedication required; layabouts need not apply type liturgy. Though that may be true to some, I think I'm really going to miss it when we hit the Paschal season. After four weeks, I'm starting to get used to it, and I find I truly appreciate every element--including the length (though it doesn't take us six hours, partly because we don't do six twenty minute litanies). Following are some highlights and reflections. (All excerpts found at Schaff's Anti-Nicene Fathers v. 7)
Prayer of the commencement.
Text: O beneficent King eternal, and Creator of the universe, receive Thy Church, coming unto Thee through Thy Christ: fulfill to each what is profitable; lead all to perfection, and make us perfectly worthy of the grace of Thy sanctification, gathering us together within Thy holy Church, which Thou hast purchased by the precious blood of Thy only-begotten Son, and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, with whom Thou art blessed and glorified, together with Thy all-holy, and good, and quickening Spirit, now and ever, and to all eternity. Amen.
Reflection: Here, gathered around the icon in the narthex we gather and hear not just our destination (Blessed is the Kingdom), but we hear what we were created to be and how God accomplished it. I'm always struck by the list of petitions: receive, fulfill, lead, make, gather. If anyone accuses me of a works-based faith again, I'll have to give them a copy of this liturgy to read. It is God's divine action that accomplished/accomplishes our salvation, and He alone makes us capable of participating with Him.
Text: God, who didst accept the gifts of Abel, the sacrifice of Noah and of Abram, the incense of
538Aaron and of Zacharias, accept also from the hand of us sinners this incense for an odour of a sweet smell, and for remission of our sins, and those of all Thy people; for blessed art Thou, and glory becomes Thee, the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, now and ever. Reflection: I love that this liturgy is steeped in Old Testament imagery, especially that of sacrifice. We come to God offering a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving which is represented in so many things, and here at the beginning of the work we ask God to accept our offering as He did to the righteous patriarchs and priests of the past. The special blessing on the incense catches me particularly, because it can be such a stumbling block to converts that to hear it placed in context is truly eye opening. This incense is simply a visual/nasal representations of the truth of our prayers and praises rising to God. May He find them pleasing.
Text: Cherubic Hymn.
Let all mortal flesh be silent, and stand with fear and trembling, and meditate nothing earthly within itself:—
For the King of kings and Lord of lords, Christ our God, comes forward to be sacrificed, and to be given for food to the faithful; and the bands of angels go before Him with every power and dominion, the many-eyed cherubim, and the six-winged seraphim, covering their faces, and crying aloud the hymn, Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.
Reflection: I have mentioned before how much I love the Cherubic Hymn. This version is slightly longer, but the basic element still remains strong even in its newest formation: We are about to receive Christ, forget everything else and focus. We, here and now, are taking part in the worship of the angels! This gives me goosebumps, especially as the gifts process and the incense forms a cloud around the clergy and the gifts. Very moving.
Magnify the Lord with me, and let us exalt His name together.
People: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow
Reflection: the words from the Gospel about the Theotokos and her response to Gabriel's message about the incarnation and her role played therein. I was surprised by this the first time I heard it, and I don't know that I really appreciated that it was being "misapplied" to the Priests, until I realized that this is the role of all of us: to bring God with us wherever we go. It is the Priests who are the icons of Christ, and we are also the icons of Christ. We are living temples of the Holy Spirit, and He will/does come and overshadow us. When we pray this for the priests, we are encouraging them to perform the task they have been preparing to do, because it is the Holy Spirit himself who will make this liturgy possible and pleasing to God.
Text: Going on from glory to glory, we praise Thee, the Saviour of our souls. Glory to Father, and Son, and Holy Spirit now and ever, and to all eternity. We praise Thee, the Saviour of our souls.
Reflection: These are the last words that the congregation says in our parish. As the priest dismisses us, we return by committing ourselves to the work of salvation, having been strengthened by the Eucharist, we go into the world to pursue holiness and union with God. A hard challenge to be sure, but it's so encouraging during this particular time of year to know that, for centuries, the Church has sought its strength from the Sacraments, understanding that it is the work of the Holy Spirit that enables us to continue living out the Gospel--from glory to glory.
This has been a very, very hard Lent. Last year I lost my job, moved, and never had the catharsis of Pascha. This year we've had two medical emergencies (one involving 3k of money we don't have), loneliness, fear of the future, insecurity in relationships, et al. We've had a few oases along the way, but it's seemed like a dry, weary land in which there has been very little life at times; and the thorns and weeds have been choking out these thirsty sprouts as they reach for the Sun.
This posting is very hard for me to write as I sit here. We are so blessed in our lives, but it's hard to see those blessings when the emotions are high and the pain seems so very real. I have been so defensive and prickly. Our girls have grown quickly, matured slowly, and discovered ways to nearly kill themselves on various occasions stretching from Forgiveness Sunday to this date (see previous post about AJ's attempt at internal puncturing with a push-pin tack and our trips to the emergency room). Life is just so hard right now. I knew this Lent would be hard (Lent is always hard), but I didn't realize that it was going to be this hard this year.
I need the Resurrection. I need to be resurrected. Spiritually, emotionally, holistically, I need to be brought from life to death. I'm so tired of the wilderness and ready for the Promised Land--even if that Promised Land is only an all-night celebration of the Resurrection, or a "brief service" resulting in our being fully welcomed into the life of the Church; and I've just only recently realized that Lent doesn't end for us until we do that. We will continue being in this state of not-yet-but-someday until we stand together at the doors of the church and the priest lays his hand on our heads and begins to pray over us that we would be filled with the Holy Spirit and come to the life in Christ.
Pascha is coming, and I'm so excited for this year! This year we get the catharsis at the end of a very difficult Lenten fast. I can't forget, though, that this is just one year at the beginning of so many more to come. God be with you all.
Lent 2011 began on Monday. By last night we had visited two hospitals, had three x-rays, three waiting rooms, and hours of slow commute from our small town to the big city as our little girl decided to inaugurate the fast by swallowing a push-pin. Mere hours after I had texted my dear friend E. about how we were praying for stability in the midst of our chaos, we were flung into the midst of the most terrifying moments I've ever experienced as a parent. In the early afternoon while she was supposed to be napping, A.J. found a way to ingest a small, red push-pin. Felicity called me at work on the way to the hospital, and we spent the rest of the afternoon and all night waiting, praying, and dreading that we'd have to watch our little girl go through a very invasive procedure. As it turned out, the push-pin has moved into her bowel and so they couldn't operate, and now we just have to wait and pray.
Lent has never been a dull experience for me personally. Every year God decides to put me through my paces and really takes the time to refine me just a little bit more. I'll admit that my first thought was to complain. "Go Lent" was heard from my mouth more than once. I was so upset (not like angry upset, but upset in the way that a basket full of fruit can be upset) by the whole experience. I couldn't even think to do anything but to pray and pray and pray and pray. I just kept repeating, "Lord make speed to save us; Lord make haste to help us" over and over and over again with occasional Lord's Prayers and intercessions to the Theotokos. I needed words of prayer and salvation (prayer A) and I needed a mom (prayer B).
Right now our little girls is laughing, smiling, and playing games with her baby sister. She's talking about the Toy Story characters on her little sippy cup, and seems oblivious to the stress of the previous night. I am so overjoyed and so thankful for all the prayers that were offered up (but here on earth and in Heaven). I'm so thankful for the ministrations of her Guardian Angel who has watched over her these two years. God has been so good to us, and I realize that you can't experience the joy of the Resurrection without the pain of the Crucifixion: that there is no Lenten spring without the hard work of germination and growth through trial and sometimes pain. "Normal" may have to wait, but I pray that God continues to show himself to us every day over the Fast.
Sorry if this is incoherent, but I'm sure you understand.
As Peter mentioned briefly in his last post, we attended the Orthodoxy in the Home webinar last month. As with any seminar, we heard many speakers talk about many subjects, and I wont be able to digest all we learned here in any sort of detail, certainly not to the extent which would truly do the conference justice. I would like to expand on some ideas that we were confronted with during the webinar and how we will be working them into our Lent.
As we mentioned during the Nativity Fast, following the traditional Orthodox fasting regimen is unwise for us, and the monk who is walking us through our catecuminate has urged us not to. Instead, in thinking about it, we will be concentrating on cultivating normal.
Over these past few months, we have been striving for survival. Through moving, unemployment, having a second child, and moving again, our family rhythms have taken a real beating. In many cases, they never existed to begin with. Since we've embraced Orthodoxy and begun to settle here, we've realized that in many ways, our life is still chaotic and unplanned. I often feel behind in everything from meals to laundry, not to mention prayer and bible study.
The webinar offered a few helpful tips that we will be implementing as we try to tame the chaos. (Note that we will not attempt to be rid of it all together. Not only would this be a useless endeavor, but life would be no fun at all.)
First, we're adjusting our approach to evening prayers. As much as we would like to pray together for 20 minutes, singing hymns, reading from scripture and learning about the day's saint, we recognize that this is impossible to do with young children. In fact, as we were reminded, it is better if we relax and enjoy the prayers we do say, even if it's only a quick Lord Have Mercy before the toddler rampages through our bedroom. We are a new family, we're new to Orthodoxy, and our prayer time will develop as we do.
Secondly, I have adopted a new strategy when it comes to Liturgy. We had been relegating our two-year-old (as of tomorrow) to the back/side of the sanctuary where she would be less in the way, able to run, color, read, play Ring-around-the-Rosy, etc. While this worked fairly well for her, it meant that one or the other of us missed the majority of the service, catching tidbits of the homily, singing a bar now and again, but generally not participating. While we still do that for the litanies, I've determined that it's not the best thing to do for the whole service, especially since there's often quite a bit going on. So, for these last few weeks, we deposit our bags in the back but we sit right up front. From the first row (which is always empty) she has a full view of the choir, the priest, the acolytes, the readers, and everything else. She watches intently while I point out what's going on by the altar, she's learning some of the songs, and she doesn't start to lose interest until the end of the homily. I enjoy interacting with her throughout the service, answering her questions, confirming her observations.
At home these days, we're taking wall paper down in the dining room, praying that the snow will end eventually, and looking forward (with trepidation) to our first lent. We're rejoicing in God's provision for our needs, but not our wants just yet. Overall, I'm appreciating more and more this season of our life and striving to keep that perspective.
This past Sunday during coffee hour Felicity and I picked up a copy of The Monk Who Grew Prayer, by Claire Brandenburg. I'd seen it advertised as part of the Orthodoxy in the Home webinar as one of their door prizes. (We actually walked away with one, which was pretty thrilling!) I was intrigued by the title and was hoping to win a copy so that I could read it. As it turns out, it was in the parish library! So we picked up a copy.
When I first heard the title, I had an idea about what the book would be. I was expecting it to be about a monk working in a garden and how all of his work was really a life of prayer which culminated in a beautiful plant or crop that he would harvest or display in church or something along those lines. I was partially right. The story is about a monk, and he does have a garden. However, instead of using the garden as a metaphor, the author takes the traditional Hours and uses the image of gardening to describe the growth and nurture of prayer as part of the monk's life. Everything from working in the garden to fixing his best (and only) chair is an opportunity for him to cultivate prayer in his life.
I picked up this book to read to our toddler. She likes it to a point. (She has a very short attention span, as you might guess, and so we've only gotten through the book once.) I've read it about five times. This wouldn't be saying much if you simply looked at the tiny book that's more pictures than it is text. However, the profundity of the sentiment has really been hitting me hard over the past few days.
We had the privilege of "e-tending" the aforementioned webinar over the weekend. And aside from occasional problems of being completely unable to hear the speakers, the overall conference was a wonderful opportunity to learn more about being Orthodox and how to impart the Faith to our children. Something that was said more than once over the weekend has been a repeated theme in our lives both in regards to Orthodoxy and just life in general: everything takes practice, and you have to start where you are.
Right now "where we are" is a young family, overly concerned and distracted by financial worries, and parenting two young children. Prayer time for us is rare, and often shorter than I'd like or feel is necessary; and yet, it's where we are. AJ will "cross" herself (if you can call it that), and she loves to make big, excited bows and kiss icons. She also prays: "Father, amen!" when we ask if she wants to pray at dinner or during our evening prayer times. I realize that we are, like her, just now getting the ground ready for the seeds of prayer to be planted and to take root in our lives. I'm learning first hand what Jesus meant when he took a child and put him in the midst of his quarreling Apostles: "Unless you become like a little child, you cannot enter the Kingdom."
Watching our little girl, I'm beginning to understand what He meant. The prayers are growing in her life. The love of God is evident when she kisses her sister, hugs us, or has her dollies kiss the icons at church or in our prayer corner. The ground is fertile, and the soil is soft, waiting for the seeds to take root. I want my heart to be like that. I want the hard shell to be removed so that the seeds of prayer can grow. Like the monk in the story, I want to "plow the sky" with my voice, lifted up in prayer. I want to water and nurture my love for Christ through prayer as though my life depended on it. May I, too, become like a little child so that I can learn to truly love my Lord and serve Him only.
With the onset of winter, getting our tiny little Chevy up the dirt road to the monastery for Sunday Liturgy. We tried one Sunday a few weeks ago and got about three-quarters of the way up and had to turn back round. The result, missing Liturgy three Sundays in a row! Exhausting. The need for finding an alternate parish home was growing on our small family. We also wanted to find a place where we wouldn't be the youngest adults present by thirty years or more.
The search began rather unsuccessfully. I [Peter] visited the Orthodoxy in America parish locator for parishes in our area. I wasn't being overly particular. Primarily, we wanted a place we could visit when the roads were bad and might have the opportunity for meeting some younger families with children the age of our girls (or thereabouts) so we wouldn't be quite so lonely. Visiting one parish last week was a blow to confidence and emotional stability. With no children to speak of and the average age closer to 70, we were not succeeding in our efforts. The drive home was very discouraging, and Felicity and I spent a very stressful week, fearing that we'd be stuck visiting every parish in the area week after week. Exhausting.
When Br. S. came over for our house blessing, we had an opportunity to sit and talk about our catechesis and life in general. He recommended a parish not far from where I work and told us it was probably the "youngest" parish in the district. Relatively new building, former mission church, broad range of ages. It didn't disappoint.
Walking into that building was like coming home again. The room was simple, the icons were few, but the atmosphere reminded me of Holy Cross and other younger parishes. I don't know how else to explain the situation. It was like standing in a room full of old friends. The icon display of the saints of North America, the young children running about, the old ladies inviting us to come up and get "church bread". Though we won't be making an hour long trip each week, it was refreshing to find a place to go when we can't get up the hill. We left in much better spirits, and wondered why we had to go through all of that pain from last weekend.
"All ye catechumens, depart! Depart, ye catechumens! All ye that are catechumens, depart! Let no catechumens remain! But let us who are of the faithful, again and again, in peace pray to the Lord."
~Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom
Most churches either don't do this or don't make the uninitiated leave the service at this point just before the Eucharistic part of the service. Most have a prayer for catechumens, often by name, followed by a prayer of the faithful. Our particular parish doesn't have either. (That's not really here or there as far as this posting is concerned.) Once upon a time, though, true converts to the faith (those coming from paganism) were kept from seeing the entire Divine Liturgy until they had been properly initiated through baptism and chrismation. These days, some parishes keep this command to the catechumens in order to remember the tradition we came from.
It's usually about this time in the service that one of the girls (or both of the girls) need special attention. Felicity needs to nurse Christine and I take the toddler by the hand and either read stories, color, feed, or otherwise distract her from her desire to run, jump, toddle, climb, open, shut, pound, etc. (Truly, she's hilarious during church. Today she started saying, "Marytokos" as a melding of Mary and Theotokos. Melts your heart, it's so cute, right?) No one really minds her little interruptions, but we are trying to make her aware of others who are trying to listen, sing, pray, and meditate around her. During this portion of the service we make our way to the nuns' sacristy and sit quietly while the Eucharistic portion of the service happens in the main chapel.
I realize that we're not alone in this moment of removing ourselves when a child becomes a little bit crazy. I used to try and fight it, staying in the service come hell or high water. A few weeks ago it dawned on me that I'm not part of what's happening in the other room. I know that I have some place there, but not the way the others do. I'm not part of that communion going on. I'm not partaking of our Lord's body and blood. Maybe the best place for me is just outside, listening, praying, singing along to the communion hymns with my little girl in my lap reading, snuggling, drinking juice. My wife and I with our two little girls in the little side room while the faithful partake of the Eucharist and invite everyone to "receive the body of Christ, taste the fountain of immortality". Someday.