Did you grow up in the Orthodox Church, or did you convert as an adult? What was the beginning of Orthodox worship in your life?
My family converted (and my Dad returned) to the church when I was 16. It was…interesting…to say the least. I was baptized Methodist as a baby, but wasn’t raised in a church. So all of a sudden, it’s like I’m 16 and we’re practicing Christians now and we’re doing this! We’re going to church.
Our first few years were a bit different from the typical conversion story. We weren’t catechized properly (or for me, at all), and I didn’t even receive the sacrament of Confession until I was 3 years Orthodox. My parents did the absolute best they could with what little guidance they had, but in the end we were sheep without a shepherd. I won’t get into the nitty gritty here, but when my older sister went off to college, my family started making the 1.5-hour trek to attend her parish there.
Once I got to college, I lost what shallow-rooted faith I had. I was still attending church, because I didn’t want my parents to see just how far I had strayed. However, I had a very warped view of Christ and the Church. About a year later, I began dating a man who I cared deeply for who was a lapsed Catholic and a serious drug addict. I had issues of my own, and after a while I started to realize that there is no way out from all this pain unless I accept Christ. Sure, the story is much longer than that, but I’ve only got so many characters here! Once I did that, we both started the slow climb out of that dark place. It’s very evident to me that God put us in each other’s lives in order to help us guide one another (though not gracefully at all) back into the Light. This is when I would say was the true beginning of Orthodox worship and Faith for me. I was 19.
Describe Sunday morning. What do you do to prepare for and arrive at church?
Sunday mornings are my favorite time of the week. My husband and I arrive to Church at 8:00 a.m. He serves in the altar and helps the priests to prepare for Liturgy until the beginning of Orthros. From this time until 8:35, you can find me in the Fellowship Hall reading. I choose to read something spiritually edifying (we’re talking more Archimandrite Zacharius and not so much LOTR, though I WOULD ATTEST that both are spiritually edifying). There is an older man that gets to church at 7:00 to open everything up. He’s done this for I don’t know how long (decades probably?). He’ll come in and chat with me for a few minutes. Our talks are always pleasant and I treasure them. This last week we talked about how he used to help his Uncle empty lobster traps in Maine.
At 8:35, I head into the church. I venerate the relics and icons in the back and then head to the front. I light a candle in front of the icon of the Theotokos and say a prayer. Then, I head back to my little corner and say the Jesus Prayer until the beginning of Orthros at 8:45. Divine Liturgy then starts at 10:00 and concludes “around” 11:30. BIG air quotes around “11:30.” We are very blessed with a large and vibrant parish, so lots of baptisms, chrismations, memorials, you name it! Oh and Confession as well. I try to go every 4-6 weeks. I prefer the marathon-like style of Confession on Saturday evenings after Vespers. The type that leaves my long-suffering priest exhausted and my husband wondering what on earth exactly that it is I did. Though this says much more about my prideful need for explanation than my actual repentance.
When you think about the Divine Liturgy, what impressions are strongest? Describe them.
During the Divine Liturgy, I feel a beautiful sense of communion. Both with God and with those around me. One of my husband and I’s favorite things to do is to attend other parishes. We are actually supremely dorky and have a scrapbook of all the churches we’ve visited since we’ve started dating. We also want to make one for visiting different Post Offices, but…haven’t gotten there yet.
Thank God, I’ve always felt totally at home in all the parishes I’ve visited. Even when I can’t understand exactly what ‘s being said because of a language barrier, my soul understands. It’s an interesting phenomenon I’ve only barely begun to appreciate in the last few years, but becoming a Christian really is like learning how to speak a new language. There are heights and depths that go beyond anything you can experience in the temporal world. Beyond anything that any external substance could give you. Christ truly is the language of all our souls, and my life now is about learning to speak that language.
What other services are a regular part of your life? What are they like?
During Orthros, you can slowly start to feel more and more people coming into the church. This continues even up until after Divine Liturgy has begun. I feel my church family slowly gathering around one another and myself. It’s like a warm embrace that feels like home. Probably because it is the closest I can get to my true home!
In addition, we are very blessed that our parish is able to offer Little Compline every Wednesday night followed by a book discussion that my husband leads. This is a sweet pick-me-up in the middle of the week and has allowed me to grow closer to the small group of regular attendees. Because of the pandemic, my priest has also been offering Paraklesis services every Friday evening during the last several months. Can we just pause here so I can tell you how much of an absolute BLESSING it’s been to be able to to step outside of the world and all its opinions for the explicit purpose of offering thanksgiving and prayer to the Mother of God as a group during these past months? It’s not the only thing keeping me sane, but it’s certainly helping.
Thank God, he has also humbly offered other additional vigils and services for this reason as well and even Divine Liturgy every Saturday. I am very, very blessed to be in a parish and under the guidance of priests who have encouraged their flock to make these darkest hours, their finest. In September, we celebrated the vigil of Sts. Zacharias and Elizabeth, and in November we are to celebrate the vigil of St. Raphael. This one will be the Friday after the election, so yea…you can bet I’ll be there!
Choose a service or feast day that is especially meaningful for you and share about it.
This year has especially strengthened my love and appreciation for the Divine Liturgy. I live in an urban area near one of the countries largest cities, so when COVID first hit, it hit us hard. It wasn’t long before there were only 5-10 people allowed in church (it’s a pretty big church). My husband serves in the altar and was asked to continue serving. At the blessing of our priest, he allowed me to continue to attend as well.
At the end of the first week of lockdown, I started the multi-day process of my miscarriage. It should go without saying that it sucked. But what I was less prepared for was also how beautiful the whole experience was. I was very, very fortunate that I was able to preserve my baby and ultimately bury her. My priest even let me bring her into church in her little box that I had decorated and just suggested I stand at the very back (because of course I still needed to have time to be fully brought back into the church). I held her in her box during the Liturgy and wept the entire service. During this time, I felt completely uplifted by the assembly of Saints and angels, especially by the prayers of her unofficial patron who we decided to name her after. During the homily, my husband came and sat in the back with me. I gave her to him and he was able to hold her for both the first and last time. After Liturgy, we had a procession around the church like we did after every Liturgy during the lockdown. Before, I was privileged to carry the reliquary box of many of our dearly beloved saints. Now, I carried the relics of our unborn baby.
To me, this is Orthodoxy. This is the Divine Liturgy and this is what Christianity is about. Fr. Thomas Hopko of blessed memory once said that Orthodoxy is Paradoxy and I believe that is true. This was one of the saddest moments of my life and yet, one of the most joyous. There is a beautiful grief that occurs when your husband keeps vigil while you endure the physical and emotional pain of the beginning of a miscarriage. When your unborn child dies, but you can take comfort in the words of Christ, “Let the little children come to me.” When you realize that your child was not really yours to begin with and that they were given and not taken away. When you celebrate the life-giving mysteries of the Divine Liturgy while holding death in your hands. This is the beauty of our faith. Thanks be to God!