Sunday, April 09, 2017

Palm Sunday Then and Now

When I was around 16, I read a book called, The Orthodox Church by Sergius Bulgakov, and I clearly remember thinking as I read it, "This is it! I have found it! If this is not the true expression of Christianity, then nothing is, and we are all doomed." I looked at the listings for the Orthodox Church in the Metropolitan Boston Yellow pages, and started calling churches because I wanted to learn more and to attend. The first three or four people who answered the phone did not speak English, and I gave up. There is a lesson in there, but that is another post.

Fast forward a few years. I was in college, and met a guy named Jerry Norman. He was a nice guy, and I liked him. We had some dates and I had met his parents for dinner once, but nothing really serious. We were chatting with friends in the cafeteria and something he said made me say to him, "Hey, I thought you were Jewish!" He replied no, he was Lebanese and a Christian. So, I asked, as you do, "Are you Melkite, Maronite or Orthodox?" He replied he was Orthodox and I asked him to take me to church. After more dates and more requests to take me to church, we finally went with his oldest brother, sister in law and two little nephews.

St. George Antiochian Church of Boston had sold their Boston property and had just begun building a new church in West Roxbury, so Holy Cross Greek Seminary was kind enough to let them worship in their gymnasium, which at the time, was also where the Celtics practiced, but that's another story entirely. I was nervous because I hadn't been to an Orthodox church, and I hadn't met the brother and his family. We all piled into the car - Jerry, me, Joey, Maddie, Ricky and Jimmy - drove to Brookline and walked into the gymnasium on Palm Sunday, 1976, 41 years ago today.

There were tons of people chatting, greeting each other with two kisses, lots of English and a little Arabic being spoken. There were two chairs on the stage with two big icons propped on them. It was not a pretty church at all, and my Roman sensibilities valued order, so I found the noise level and the milling about and greeting people somewhat jarring. There was a guy on the right side, just below the stage, who was singing something mysterious and moody and very Middle Eastern sounding in a mixture of English, Arabic and Greek. I looked out the doors, and saw a rowdy crowd of people making their way toward the gymnasium, maybe 40 or 50. They came in, chatting and greeting people, and milling around in the back. There were children EVERYWHERE, getting underfoot, running around. It was chaotic.

Then the priest came out. I learned later that his name was Fr. George George. He was as wide as he was tall, had a cap of silver ringlets and when he opened his mouth, the most beautiful, silky baritone came out. Then there was a single toot on a pitch pipe behind me, and that rowdy bunch of 50 people began singing in 4 and 6 part harmony. Such beautiful music, music like I had never heard before. Beautiful words set to beautiful music that perfectly fit what was going on at the altar. I didn't understand everything, but it was clearly a dialog back and forth between the priest, the deacon (Fr. Philip) and the choir. There were altar boys, fans, golden vestments... Eventually, it was time for communion, and mothers and fathers brought their little children to communion. I found it very moving.

It was all so beautiful, and strange, yet so familiar. It moved me so deeply. I really was transported that day, in a gymnasium, without all the trappings that Orthodox Churches usually have. The timelessness, the emphasis on awe and mystery fed me in a way that I had never experienced. I didn't know if I was in heaven or on earth, just like St. Vladimir's emissaries. At the end, there was a procession with the little children leading us. Everyone had candles with flowers (mostly forsythia) and palms. We were led by the cross, a gaggle of altar boys, and all the many, many children who were singing something and waving their palms. And then it was over, way too soon. I fell in love that day with the Orthodox faith and I have never fallen out of love with it.

That was 41 years ago today. Since then, there have been 41 Palm Sundays in my life, at St. George's, St. John of Damascus while it was still on Museum Road in Boston, Church of the Redeemer in Los Altos Hills, CA, St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in San Jose, South Bay Mission in Santa Clara, St. Innocent when it was still in Fremont, St. Mary Magdalene in Georgia, and last year at St. Christina's in Fremont. 41 years, 41 processions, joyfully following Christ and proclaiming him to be The One, only to kiss him on the cheek and betray him four days later, 41 Holy Weeks. Am I any different than I was 41 years ago? Certainly, I'm older, and life has not been kind. I weathered every storm and tragedy, holding on for dear life to the Orthodox faith. Older, for sure, maybe a little wiser, but fundamentally, am I different? Am I more like Christ today than I was 41 years ago? Or, am I like a mill horse, endlessly walking around in a circle and never getting anywhere? I fear that is the case. Life keeps happening and requires a response which takes up my energy. A few years ago, Jerry dropped dead suddenly without warning and brought home to me the fact that time is short. I don't have 41 more years in me, maybe 25 or 30, to work on a good defense before the dread judgement seat of Christ.

41 years is a long time. Orthodoxy is in my bones now. It takes a long time for converts to develop an Orthodox phronema. I tell converts that the process of becoming Orthodox does not end with their baptism and chrismation - that is when the real work begins which will last a lifetime. At the least, I can say that I have persevered, and will continue to persevere till the end.

Saturday, April 01, 2017

Knitting advice from Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Metropolitan Anthony Bloom in his book “School for Prayer” tells a story about a lady who visited him shortly after he became a priest in the Orthodox Church. She wanted his advice about prayer. For fourteen years she had been saying the Jesus prayer almost continually, she said, and had never experienced God’s presence at all. “If you speak all the time”, said Anthony, “You don’t give God a chance to get a word in”.
“What shall I do?”, she asked. Anthony advised her to go into her sitting room after breakfast, “Make sure everything is tidy and sit in a chair, light the little lamp before the icon that you have, and first of all take stock of your room. Just sit, look around, and try to see where you are. Be aware of what’s around you. Admire the objects. Be totally present. Take out your knitting and knit for about 15 minutes before the face of God, but I forbid you to say one word of prayer. You just knit, or sit still, and enjoy the peace of your room.”
Well of course she didn’t think this was very spiritual advice at the time, but some weeks later the lady returned. She was a different person. “It works!”, she told him. “I got up, washed, tidied my room, had breakfast, came back, made sure there was nothing that would worry me and settled into my armchair and thought ’ Oh how nice, I have 15 minutes in which I can do nothing without feeling guilty’ And I looked around, and for the first time in years, I thought ‘Goodness! What a lovely room I live in’. Then, she said, “I felt so quiet because the room was so peaceful. There was a clock ticking, but it didn’t disturb the silence. Its ticking just underlined the fact that everything was so still, and after a while I remembered that I must knit before the face of God. I began to knit and became more and more aware of the silence. Then I perceived that this silence was not simply the absence of noise, but that the silence had substance. It was not an absence of something, but a presence of something. The silence had a density, a richness and it began to pervade me. The silence around began to come and meet the silence within me. All of a sudden, I perceived that the silence was a presence. At the heart of the silence there was Him, who is all stillness, all peace, all poise.
Knitting is powerful stuff. Knitting is so profound.