The Resilient Orthodox: We Come Needy

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The morning light reflects off the gold of the icons and it is beautiful. The church is quiet, save footsteps walking up to venerate the icons. We are in community, yet we are alone.

We come needy. We come with hearts heavy with the burdens of the week. We come with anger and with pain, emotional and physical. We come with sickness and sorrow. We come with hearts longing for more, knowing that though we are created for eternity, we get mired in the clay of the every day.

And in this place, where Heaven meets earth in divine liturgy, we will glimpse the eternal. 

In any group of people, there are so many stories of life lived, good and bad,

We have children with autism and diabetes; foot problems and depression. We have bodies that betray us and hearts that are alternately hard and soft. We have tongues that choose to speak life-giving words or words that damage and destroy. We have children who weigh heavy on our hearts, ones who we pray will not lose their way. We have parents who can no longer move well, or speak well, or think well. We have burdens deep and wide. But in this space, we can place them before the altar of God’s infinite love.

We are humans made in the image of God, made for his glory and in this space we take time to remember that.

We come needy to the altar and hear the words of the priest as he gives us the Holy Gifts on a spoon. For a short time, we remember. We enter into the eternal and time doesn’t matter. We don’t try to solve the mystery of salvation, we accept it as the needy ones. 

We come needy, and we leave full. 

On Celebrating Nativity

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Yesterday was Feast of the Nativity – our Orthodox Christmas. As people new to the Orthodox church, we are still learning how to walk between these dates and traditions. Our Protestant families celebrate the 25th of December and we will continue to do this. But along with that is a new celebration on the 7th of January. While December 25th held stockings, gifts, and a special Christmas dinner, January 7th is celebrated completely at the church.  We are celebrating with many others around the world who also celebrate the Nativity on this day.

We began Tuesday evening with a vigil preparing us for the celebration on the 7th. Beautiful troparions reminded us of the importance of this day, along with readings and scripture all pointing to the birth of our Lord.

Wednesday had us up and at the church by nine in the morning for Divine Liturgy. The icon of Mary giving birth, surrounded by angels and midwives was at the front of the church, surrounded by flowers. As I went to the front to venerate the icon I longed to stay longer, standing before that icon, thinking about the birth, remembering and honoring this woman, who all generations will call “blessed.” But the line behind me had grown and it wasn’t the time to stop.

I wish I could describe for you the beauty of these services. The candles casting a golden glow over icons, the hush and expectancy in the air, the choir to the right of the iconostasis, leading us in these words:

How is he contained in a womb, whom nothing can contain? How held in his Mother’s arms, he who is in the Father’s bosom? This is all as he knows, as he wished and as he was well pleased. For being without flesh, willingly he was made flesh; and He Who Is, for our sake has become what he was not; without departing from his own nature he shared in our matter; wishing to fill the world on high, Christ was born in two natures.
-Kathisma from the Orthros of the Nativity of Christ

Today the Virgin gives birth to the Transcendent One, and the earth offers a cave to the Unapproachable One! Angels, with shepherds, glorify Him! The wise men journey with the star! Since for our sake the Eternal God is born as a little child (Kontakion).

Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the light of wisdom! For by it, those who worshiped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness and to know Thee, the Orient from on high . O Lord, glory to Thee! (Troparion).

I have often missed the Christmases of my youth; Christmas celebrations that contained so much more corporate worship. We always went to church on Christmas, celebrating with the Pakistani Christian minority, singing carols in Urdu at the top of our lungs accompanied by a harmonium. Miss Mall, a Punjabi woman with lungs as large as her personality would begin the songs when we lived in Larkana, others when we lived in Shikarpur. We were dressed in our very best, and “Barra Din Mubarak ho” was on the lips of everyone.

Our new traditions in the Orthodox church remind me of the community gatherings of my past, gathering to celebrate the birth of Jesus. We gather together in our best. We have been fasting together for six weeks, honoring the struggle as a community. We meet with the words “Christ is Born!” and we respond “Glorify Him!”  Who better to gather with than fellow Christians?

Yet in the west, our church celebrations have been replaced by the all important nuclear family. They become individualized, lacking community focus. It is nuclear families that gather, preferring ‘family’ time. But that leads to all kinds of sad. When nuclear families are struggling, when a teenager is not speaking to their parents, when family members decide against going to mom and dads, when divorce divides a family, it leaves people alone on Christmas. Alone to celebrate an event in history that even those who don’t believe acknowledge through the yearly calendar. For so many it has become a day marked by stress, debt, loneliness, and sadness. The individual has replaced the community and we are the sadder for it.

After Divine Liturgy, we eat a feast fit for a king, or at least a bishop. All the cheese, cream, and meat that we have fasted from in the past weeks is on the table in abundance. We fill our plates so high that half way through we laughingly acknowledge that we over estimated our ability through that age-old idiom “My eyes were bigger than my stomach!”

We left the church in the bitter cold of the day, heading into a world that was busy with the day’s work, business as usual. But despite this, the words of the troparion continued to go through my head – “Thy Nativity O Christ our God, has shown to the world the light of wisdom….” 

This is Nativity. This is the celebration of the birth of our Lord.

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 28 “On Mother Susan and Popadia Paula”

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“That Mother Susan is really wise.” We had arrived back home after Divine Liturgy and the welcome “post-fasting” coffee hour, designed to be substantial since we fast before communion. My husband burst out laughing. “She’s not Mother Susan” he said. “She’s Popadia Susan.”

Once again I find myself traveling into the land where I forget titles, where I sit at the wrong times, where I finally get up the courage to go to the front and venerate icons only to have a deacon pop out of nowhere and look at me over a sensor with an “I am on a mission and you are in my way!” Will I ever get this right? Probably not, but at least I no longer go into crisis mode and immediately dismiss this ancient faith simply because I don’t like the way I feel during these times.

But back to Mother Susan. In the Orthodox church for the most part priests have wives. Not only do they have wives but the role is respected and honored as such. They are called different things depending on the jurisdiction — khouria in Arabic; presbytera in Greek; and in the Russian Orthodox Church they are even called “matushka .”little mother.”
One person described them as having wonderful titles with no real job description

Four years ago I would occasionally visit the church that we now regularly attend, the community that has walked with us these past two years. I visited as a complete outsider, ill at ease and out of sorts. I froze when greeting Father Patrick or Father Michael, both of whom communicate well and make all feel welcome. I sat on the sidelines, an observer – alone and foreign.

I would console myself that I was used to sitting on the sidelines, alone and foreign. But I still wasn’t okay with it. There was a piece of me that desperately wanted this Orthodox faith to work for me – but I wouldn’t admit it.

As I observed from the sidelines I watched the women of the church and I was fascinated. There were young women of college age, women with young children or newly married, middle-aged women, older women, and old women. They were from Bulgaria and Romania, Russia and the Ukraine, Greece and the United States. They were dark-haired and blonde haired, some with head coverings, some without. Some in long skirts and some in shorter skirts.

The interactions were multicultural and multigenerational. It was common to see older women pick up little children to comfort them, regardless of who they belonged to. I watched young women seek advice and comfort from older women, talking earnestly together with heads bent forward. In the churches I had attended I was used to a far more fragmented system where young marrieds were in one place, young moms in another, empty nesters were usually traveling, and older women set to the side.

Two women stood out and it was clear that they were seen as leaders. But their leadership was winsome and drew people in. They laughed a lot and sometimes talked during liturgy – something that attracted me immediately.

After some time I found out that these were the priests wives – Popadia Paula and Popadia Susan (the one I had mistakenly referred to as “mother”). I was fascinated by their engagement with the church. It didn’t come in the form of leading Bible studies or playing the piano, a non-existent instrument in the Orthodox Church. Instead they seemed to function as unofficial mentors. They seemed to know every woman, man, and child in the church by name. They had a security and confidence that was refreshing and admirable. I couldn’t put my finger on why I was attracted to this.

And so I watched them. For about a year I didn’t have many conversations with either woman. I just observed. But what I saw reminded me of the women that surrounded me while growing up in Pakistan. They were women with a solid security not based on an agenda created by the broader culture that surrounded them. They knew who they were before God and it translated into a confidence in all they did. The women who surrounded me while growing up were Dr. Mary and Auntie Hannah, Auntie Phyllis and Auntie Bettie, Auntie Connie and my mom. Some were single, others were married; some were doctors, others were nurses; some were teachers, others were linguists. But all were strong in who they were. They did not let either American or Pakistani culture dictate who they should be and what they should care about, instead they knew who they were before God. In short they knew what a woman was worth – that as women they were understood by God, called by God, most of all beloved by God.

And that’s what I saw in Mother Susan and Popadia Paula, no matter what their titles.

As time has gone on I have gotten to know both these women a bit better, a gift during this time in my life. Popadia Paula has walked beside me as my sponsor during the months of preparation before getting baptized. In that role she also stood with me during our marriage ceremony. I have found that these priests wives are fun and strong, they are wise and sensitive, they are imperfect and know their flaws. They are moms and mentors, sisters and sinners. They are and will always be Mother Susan and Popadia Paula.*

*Pronunciation is (PO pa DEE ya)

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 14 “Becoming Greek”

Christ Pantocrator, detail of the Deesis mosaic

“So when are you becoming Greek?”

Come again?

I was at our neighborhood restaurant, The Village Grill — a fine dining establishment that serves the food you want most on a Friday night. Pizza, Gyros, subs, calzone, chicken kebab over Greek salad — it’s all there and it’s great.  A small framed news article on the wall from years ago depicts Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, both originally from Cambridge, in an interview stating this restaurant is their favorite Cambridge “dining establishment’.  Not only is the food flavorful and comfortable, we always get to talk to our resident Greek philosopher, Theo, the owner.

Theo knows everyone in the neighborhood.

When Theo found out we were attending the Orthodox church he was full of curiosity. He wanted to know more about it. The questions included why? Which one? The Greek church up the street? Theo was baptized in the church as a baby and though he rarely goes, his wife attends every Sunday. She loves the Church.

“You mean when are we becoming Orthodox? When are we being Chrismated?” I said, a bit puzzled.

“Yeah, you know. Becoming Greek. Ya know it’s hard to become Greek. It’s not easy”

The way much of the west understands the Orthodox church is around ethnicity. There’s Greek Orthodox. There’s Russian Orthodox. There’s Bulgarian Orthodox. There’s the Orthodox Church of America. There’s the Russian Orthodox Church of America. When people ask us about becoming Orthodox, they immediately go to ethnicity. They want to know ‘which orthodox?’. It’s valid.

Faith and ethnicity is not a problem unique to the Orthodox church, indeed it rears it’s ugly, divisive head in Christianity in many other ways and denominations.

But since my faith journey is leading me into the Eastern Orthodox church I am naturally concerned and irritated about this issue in the Orthodox church. Because no – I am not becoming Greek, despite the fact that I love Greeks and sort of wish I was one.

And this is what comes to mind as I discuss “becoming Greek” with our friend and restaurant owner.

As a blog post I don’t have either the time or inclination to dig deeply into the history of these divisions. I do understand some of them to have come from the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Romanian diaspora and their desire to preserve their culture, which was uniquely united with their faith. To be Greek was to be Orthodox. And it’s understandable. Much of the way Orthodoxy spread has been through migration of ethnic groups as opposed to an evangelical mission movement. And the more I read, the more I realize this has been written and talked about for centuries.

As I read and study more I am heartened that I am not the only one troubled by ethnic divisions. I am encouraged by these words from Fr John Peck:

“The truth of the Orthodox faith, as presented on paper, is actually being believed – by those who have no familial or historical connection with the Orthodox. These poor deluded souls (of which I count myself) actually believe what they are reading about the Orthodox faith, and expect the Church to act like, well, the Church. They refuse to accept the Church as a club of any kind, or closed circle kaffeeklatsch….. The passing away of the Orthodox Church as ethnic club is already taking place. It will come to fruition in a short 10 years, 15 years in larger parishes.”

“So what unites the Orthodox Church?”  I ask, looking for answers. Worship of God as expressed through the Divine Liturgy. No matter what language or ethnicity, this will be the same. Holy Tradition and belief that the Holy Spirit sustains this Holy Tradition, building up the Church through the ages. These are the hallmarks that unite what ethnicity and culture tend to confuse.

There is also a distinction that should be made between the beauty of traditions made rich from the influence of ethnicity and culture and the divisions that clothing the gospel in ethnocentric robes can bring. With the first I am more aware of how big and creative God is, how much he delights in culture and ethnicity and how rich and beautiful worship can be. With the second, I am made to feel I don’t belong unless I am Greek (or Russian or Bulgarian — depending on the service)

Christianity is a faith that is available for all people in all cultures at all times. I will stand by that until the day I die. My faith journey is moving me into Orthodox faith and tradition, and I am learning more about Christ’s love for the Church and thus the importance of the Church in my faith through this. It is how God is leading me. And though divisions have come and gone through the ages, the Holy Spirit marches on at the whims of no one and nothing.

If the gates of Hell cannot prevail against the building of the Church, ethnic divisions have not a chance. 

And so “No – I am not becoming Greek.”

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 9 “On Prayer”

A small, brown book sits on our altar, beside our dining room table. The cover is engraved in gold with the simple words “Orthodox Prayer Book”.

It feels unfamiliar, the pages not yet worn. Our priest recommended this book to me in the late spring. “Sit with me” he said one day after Divine Liturgy. He didn’t waste time, no small talk. “What are you reading these days?” he asked. I stumbled a bit. Dare I tell him Man in the White Sharkskin Suit? Or Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest stunning novel?

Perhaps I could just start with saying “The Bible.” Evidently I said it with a question mark at the end, as though I didn’t quite know. Truth is — I dd know. At the time I was reading a slim but astounding paperback called The Incarnation. At times I had to put this down. My head would begin to pound with the layers of mystery that surrounded it. The Incarnation — a mystery we will never fully understand on this earth yet, if we are willing, we benefit from it daily.

The talk went on. I was moved that he was truly interested, he really wanted to know what I was doing to grow spiritually, how I was learning more about faith and God. One of the things Father Patrick recommended was the small prayer book.

“I encourage you to look at morning and evening prayers” he said. “There are many different prayers marking many different situations. You may find it helpful.”

Slowly, tentatively we began doing prayers. On our own in the morning; my husband and I together in the evening.

They began with humor. “Is this the right tone?” we would whisper to each other, as though our new Orthodox brothers and sisters would hear, miles away in their houses, tucked into beds. “No – I think we go lower on this part”.

We, who have been on a faith journey of many years, were hesitant, walking into this with some reluctance.

“O Heavenly King. Comforter, Spirit of Truth. Who art everywhere present. And fillest all things, Treasury of Good Gifts, and Giver of Life. Come and Abide in us, and cleanse us of all impurity. And save our Souls O Good One.”

Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal – Have Mercy on Us. (x3 said the little, brown book)

So we began and slowly this is becoming an important habit. Some would say this is rote, they would argue that it is more meaningful speaking words of our own. But words of our own also become rote. Something is only rote when we make it rote, when we stop thinking about the meaning behind the words, the call to us through the words. Habitual repetition of anything can lose its meaning.

But habitual repetition can also move souls, and move my heart. As I walk through the streets of Boston, and day after day see the homeless, huddled together under thin, dirty blankets I can say the prayer “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, Have Mercy on me, have mercy on them.” and it doesn’t feel rote. It feels like the only response possible. For I have nothing to give, nothing to offer that can change their situation.

So I clutch my prayer book with reverence, praying that I will learn more through these prayers that are right now unfamiliar. Praying that as we take on this habit we will be changed into people who reflect the icon above us – the Christ, Son of the Living God.

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The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 6 “Slowly by Slowly”

A few years ago, when I still hoped the Orthodox church would not become a full part of our lives, when I looked on this faith as a distant second cousin, one I was fond of and respected but didn’t necessarily invite for Sunday dinners, my husband met a Bishop who was attending Divine Liturgy.

“I hope to become Orthodox, one day” my husband said. He graciously didn’t add “but there’s this little problem with my wife…..”

The Bishop looked at him, clasped his hands, and said “I want to say ‘Yavash, Yavash’ Slowly, Slowly. We’re not going anywhere”.

This phrase is actually Turkish (“yavaş yavaş”) and while it means “Slowly, Slowly”, it seems to mean more than this. It means “to do something quietly,thoughtfully,without attention from others”.

One thing about this Orthodox journey – no one is in a hurry for us to jump in like we would a swimming pool on a hot day. No one minds that we are going about this more carefully than we’ve done anything in our lives. No one minds that we question, and read, and question some more. In fact – the Bishop’s words to my husband are the way this journey is encouraged.

Orthodox faith is like a slow hike up a tall mountain. You periodically have to stop and rest, take a long drink,and then move on. You are encouraged to do so by those who have gone before. It used to be that those interested in the Orthodox church were given years of intense instruction before being encouraged to be baptized. During this period the one new to the church is called a catechumen — “one receiving instruction in the basic doctrines of Orthodoxy before admission to communicant membership in the Church”. The understanding was that the Church held mysteries that were not immediately available to the one who was ‘seeking’, that it was a slow belief process, not an easy ‘beliefism’. The Church wanted the catechumen to understand that the call of this faith was serious, the demands were huge, the walk of the faithful a steady discipline.

This is far from the practice of many modern-day protestant churches and I find myself occasionally uncomfortable in the Orthodox church, as one who ‘doesn’t belong’. I’ve begun to understand what it was like for my friends who did not believe but occasionally came to churches because something, someone drew them there, to understand why they sometimes thought we spoke ‘Martian’. In a way it’s like the words of the Beaver to Lucy about Aslan: it doesn’t feel safe, but it feels good, it feels right.

For entering Orthodoxy has been like entering a new country, one that I am completely unfamiliar with. I don’t know the language, the practice, or the ‘rules’. A country where I don’t have a passport or visa stamp, just an interest and a strong sense that I am walking in obedience. I sit on the outside looking in to something that I alternately long for and push away.

I am in this process slowly by slowly, yavaş yavaş, attentive to what I don’t know, what I don’t understand. I am humbled by this journey, I feel like a child who “thinks she’s mastered the art of bow tying only to realize that one loop doesn’t make a bow.”*

I am the Reluctant Orthodox and I walk this journey slowly by slowly, sometimes frustrated, sometimes delighted, but always learning.

*source unknown

The Reluctant Orthodox – Volume 3 “In Peace Let us Depart”

I wanted to sneak a look at my phone to find out the time. It had been at least a half hour since the priest had sung “In Peace Let us Depart” and the congregation had responded “In the Name of the Lord”.

If we were to depart in Peace, then why was I still standing at a service? I could smell the coffee hour downstairs, that delicious and substantial meal that follows every Divine Liturgy. Orthodox fast from midnight on Saturday until after communion and so no one has even had a cup of coffee by the end of the service. People are hungry and ready for more than a small pastry or muffin. We who are on this journey come into fasting slowly, hesitantly– especially me. I am, after all, the reluctant Orthodox.

This first happened before I had taken a bigger step inside the inner workings of the Orthodox church, before I had heard the famous Orthodox joke: “You know you’re Orthodox when you’re still at the service a half hour after the priest has said “In peace let us depart…!”

The Orthodox church in North America is a sun dial set in the Western world of the Swiss clock. Time is not important once you enter the doors of the sanctuary and venerate the icons. You settle in to the service and there are no clocks. No one is worrying that Sunday dinner will burn in the oven. No one seems to be thinking about time at all.

I live in a world where time is important, where people watch the clock. Where we talk about having ‘me’ time; ‘alone’ time; time for ‘self’; where time is money, except on the weekend and then time is recreation and rest.

And so it takes me a while to settle in to the absence of time keeping, to a place where eternity matters more than the seconds and the minutes. I should be good at this. I grew up in the East where I would sit for hours on charpais, feet curled up under me, listening to a Pakistani preacher fervently exhorting his congregation– a small band of men, women, and children living out Christian faith in a country where mosques stood on every corner. I grew up where people were far more important than time, where clocks stopped during worship, where you knew time only by the Call to Prayer ringing out over the city five times a day.

But in this journey into Orthodoxy I find it is yet another area where my heart, soul, and body are challenged. A strange new world that draws me further in, even as it confounds and sometimes annoys me. I find my annoyance slowly chiseled down to its base, its base of sin and self.

The Priest makes the sign of the cross and we are now free to leave, but no one is hurrying away, rushing for the door. Instead people slowly walk around, some to icons on walls around the room, some toward the priest who is giving a ‘traveler’s blessing’, and some to the coffee hour downstairs where they will wait still longer until the food is blessed.

And so the reluctant Orthodox slowly makes her way to the door, thinking about eternity and the eternal, when all of time will be redeemed and put into its rightful place, where there will be time for all thing good and holy, and when all things good and holy will have time.

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