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Checking in from Boston, and musings on weddings

IMG_3508I am looking up briefly from the Scrivener window at my carrel in the Holy Cross library. I have to say, it’s been a lovely time thus far. The library has been excellent for my purposes; at IU, I had to have 30-40 items out via interlibrary loan at any given moment, but here, I’ve only had to ILL 2-3 books. Fr. Joachim Cotsonis, the library’s director (also the Byzantine lead seals specialist), and Hilary Rogler, the circulation and ILL librarian, have been wonderfully helpful at every turn. I’m getting a lot done, and it’s been due in no small part to their help. A chapter went out to my advisor a couple of weeks ago; I’m hopeful that I will have another one out sooner than later.

A couple of weekends ago we drove back to Indianapolis (yes, drove; airfare for three of us for a weekend just wasn’t going to be worth it) for the wedding of our dear friend Laura Willms, the Tall Ray of Sunshine herself, as well as one of the Orthogals, and the Executive Board secretary of the Saint John of Damascus Society. Flesh Of My Flesh was the koumbara, so we left Thursday evening and arrived in Indy on Friday afternoon in time for the bachelorette party. Saturday was a crazy day of rehearsal stuff, which I was semi-involved with because I was part of the wedding choir. Sunday, we attended Divine Liturgy at Holy Apostles, which was very much like being home again, even if for the rest of the trip it felt very strange being back. The wedding itself then followed at Ss. Constantine and Helena, an OCA parish under the Romanian Episcopate, and it was quite a wedding service; besides their pastor, an archpriest from St. Tikhon’s and a ROCOR priest from Detroit were also concelebrating, and it was a grand affair to say the least. Following that, we enjoyed ourselves at the reception, and then it was time to make the trek home. We headed out Sunday evening, and got back to Brookline Monday afternoon. Many years to Laura and Gabe!

I would like to give a shout out to Summer, our hostess; we used Airbnb to find a place to stay, and it was our first time doing so. We lucked out — we found a lovely cottage in the Irvington neighborhood that was really comfortable, more than reasonable price-wise, and conveniently located. Summer has done a lot with the place to make it homey and welcoming, and I highly recommend booking with her if you need accommodations in Indianapolis.

I’ll also mention an experience that I had while we were out there that demonstrated for me how much the PDF has changed the business of the copy shop. I needed (or so I thought) to print out my music for the wedding, so I went to the FedEx Kinko’s in Broad Ripple to print it out. I had been e-mailed 20 separate PDFs, and I had them on my iPad. I asked somebody behind the counter, is there a way I can print these directly from the iPad? No, they said, and we can’t touch them because they’re music PDFs. We have to have written permission to copy before we can do anything with sheet music behind the counter.

Before I forget, I should note that I had Theodore with me, and that FedEx Kinko’s is a really bad place to take squirrelly two year olds.

But, whatever, okay, fine. I worked at a Kinko’s 10 years ago, and I know my way around, more or less. I went to one of the pay workstations to transfer them from my e-mail to a thumbdrive. Theodore was taking a little too much interest in the workstation’s CD drive, though, so I tried to make it quick.

I took the thumbdrive over to one of the copiers. The first thing I noticed was that the copiers could access Dropbox, and they were also able to access mobile devices directly. Grr. That’s why I asked, people behind the counter.

The second thing I noticed was that there was no way to batch print PDFs; I had to go through something like five screens to print each one individually. With twenty PDFs to print, each taking an individual series of fine motor skills to do so, keeping Theodore under control quickly became like trying to juggle Jell-O. I got two printed out before Theodore cheerfully realized that the main power switch on the copier was exactly at his eye level.

I took the thumbdrive back to somebody at the counter. Is there any way I can avoid having to print out all of these individually? I asked. Can I do anything to just print them as a batch? The guy said no, not from a copier, and he was just about to take the thumbdrive from me to print them out himself… when the co-worker I talked to earlier piped in and said, “No, it’s music, we can’t do anything with it.” I told her the PDFs were all public domain. “It doesn’t matter,” she said. “Without written permission to copy, we can’t touch it.”

Okay, I said, you see I’ve got a toddler with me. Is there an easier way to do what I’m doing?

Well, she said, you could batch print from a workstation, but they’d be five times the cost.

There’s really nothing else that can be done?

Nope.

I printed the remaining PDFs as quickly as Theodore would allow me to do and left. I also theoretically needed to buy a black binder, but at that point I was irritated enough at their lack of helpfulness that I didn’t want to spend any more money there. So, I texted the choir director, saying, hey, do you have an extra black binder?

He texted me back saying, yeah, I’ve got all the music printed out and in binders here already.

Le sigh.

This capped off what has been a year of weddings; last October, our friends Phil and Lisa got married at All Saints, the next month was the wedding of our Indianapolis friends Fotios and Diana, the sister of Theodore’s godmother got married in Illinois this last May, and then in July, Benjamin, Theodore’s godfather, got married in Cleveland (at the Deer Hunter church, no less). I also got pulled in to chant a wedding at St. Mary’s Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cambridge the weekend before Gabe and Laura’s wedding, bringing me full circle back to point of origin for the Boston Byzantine Choir, whose Mystical Supper was the first CD of Orthodox music I ever bought.

At this stage of the game, I’ve seen a lot of Orthodox weddings. I remember going to my first; it was in Fort Wayne, and it was 10 years ago. I was still at the OMGEVERYTHINGISSOAMAZINGLYBEAUTIFUL stage of my inquiry, and that was pretty much what I had to say about the wedding service. Since then, I’ve chanted a couple (not many, just because of the nature of the parishes where I’ve chanted for the most part), I’ve sung in a choir for a few; I’ve been koumbaros for a few; I’ve stood in the congregation for a few. I’ve seen first marriages between converts, first marriages between converts and spouses who don’t plan on converting, first marriages between cradles and converts, first marriages between cradles and non-converts, second marriages between converts, and second marriages of converts to spouses who have no intention of converting. I don’t think I’ve yet been to a wedding service for two cradles, but I assume that’ll happen here before too long.

I’ve been to weddings under a lot of different circumstances. One of the second marriage services was between two divorced people who basically shopped for a bishop who would sign off on the second marriage when the bishop at their home parish dragged his feet. I’ve seen converts convince the priest (a Serbian) to allow kilts and bagpipes in the church for the service. I’ve seen two priests marry off their kids together. I’ve seen weddings that are pro forma ceremonies for people who have been married for years but need crowns so that their bishop will accept the husband as a seminarian. I’ve seen an Orthodox/non-Orthodox coupling do an Orthodox service with, essentially, a Protestant service then performed at the reception. I’ve seen the koumbaros get asked to serve at the last second because the non-Orthodox groom didn’t realize that his non-Orthodox close family member couldn’t do it until the priest told him. I’ve seen converts marry where one spouse’s family is Protestant, the other spouse’s family is also Orthodox, but to make it even more fun, the Orthodox family at some point decided to go non-canonical Old Calendar, even though the child in question stayed in a canonical jurisdiction. I’ve seen the non-Orthodox spouse grumble about the layout of the church and their own lack of “lines”. I’ve seen converts marry where one family is unchurched, the other family is polemically anti-Orthodox, and both families are big enough that the only Orthodox in attendance at the service are up at the solea because the couple couldn’t make room on the guest list for more than a couple of their church friends. I’ve seen the betrothal done months in advance because the couple wanted the engagement to be more than just an engagement in the worldly sense; I’ve seen it done separately because the non-Orthodox spouse was was worried about the length of the service for non-Orthodox attendees.

My observation, on the whole, is that the wedding can really present something of a conundrum for the non-Orthodox participants, be they spouse or family of the spouse. This conundrum can be handled well, or, well, not; somebody — a convert who married a convert — once told me that in some ways, he/she wished that they had gotten married before they converted. They could have gotten married at the church of one of the families, then been baptized, then been crowned, and it would have amounted to the same thing without making the day itself such a lightning rod for contention.

This is also not exclusively an Orthodox conundrum, I should hasten to add. Neither my wife nor I had any Anglican family when we got married in the Episcopal Church way back in the day; her background being Catholic, there were certainly some issues there, and my background being a combination of unchurched/militant atheist and Evangelical, the high church (well, as high as we could make it in a suburb of Seattle) ceremony and the Catholic-ish sense of things was difficult for some of my people, too.

Some of it, for better or for worse (so to speak), is the service itself. It’s not that long as wedding services go (our Anglican wedding, with full Eucharist, was an hour and fifteen minutes long), but to the extent that the secular norm now seems to be something like 10 minutes long (“Do you think this is a good idea?” “Yes.” “How about you?” “Yes.” “Okay, you’re married.”), the 45 minutes to an hour that most Orthodox weddings I’ve been to have lasted probably seem intimidating, and since there are no vows, there’s nothing really for the non-Orthodox crowd to hang their hat on in terms of familiarity. And, oh wow, you guys still do that Corinthians reading? Is that even legal in 2014? Some priests insert commentary as they go, and that can be a help, but it can also be really cloying if not done well. Other priests charge on through, and hopefully somebody’s put together a well-annotated service leaflet.

Some of it, though, I have to imagine is simply non-Orthodox participants realizing that they’re marrying off somebody close to them at a Greek/Russian/whatever Orthodox wedding, seeing the crowns, and thinking, People still do this in this day and age? I guess it’s cute that they think all of this matters, but, really? We’re not Hindus or whatever. Couldn’t you just do the aisle and vows and call it good for the sake of everybody else, and if this other stuff is so important to you, do it on a day when we all aren’t trying to share it with you and looking stupid because we don’t have a clue as to what’s going on? We can’t even say the Lord’s Prayer right in here. What the hell happened?

Here’s the thing. If you’re a non-Orthodox parent of a convert, or even a non-Orthodox spouse, marrying a cradle, then you have something bigger you can point to as to what the hell happened. They’re marrying into a family with a strong religious tradition, and that’s what you do. Without that external explanation, though, you’re left with a very real distance between you and your child that your child chose. Your child chose to have a wedding that was something different than what you imagined for him or her way back in the day, you may have strong ecclesial feelings that do not look kindly on the Orthodox Church, you have no input into a service that is fixed, and the result is that you feel like you can’t fully participate. That’s a hard thing, and in the worst case scenario, I’ve seen the family sullenly sit there throughout the whole service, not even acknowledging the proceedings enough to stand. Alternately, I’ve seen the parts that the families can have input on, like the reception, the budget, etc. become where people decide to locate the hills on which they’re willing to die. Mostly, though, I just see people looking confused and awkward, and then visibly relieved when it’s over. “I want to be respectful,” a bride’s family member once told me, “but I had no way to follow what was happening, even with the program notes.”

It’s like I’ve said before; we converts hope, in our heart of hearts, that when people visit our churches it will be the Russian Primary Chronicle again, with the non-Orthodox not knowing whether they were in heaven or on earth but knowing that God dwells there because of the beauty. That just isn’t what happens, for the most part. People come to weddings in America in 2014 to participate emotionally, not to see a beautiful service. When they don’t feel like they have a way to do that (or a reasonable way to explain why they don’t have a way to do that), it’s just not the same, no matter how beautiful of a service it is.

To be clear about something — I’m not criticizing the service or converts getting married. I love the Orthodox wedding service; I love participating as cantor (I wish I’d had the opportunity to chant more of them than I have), and I love just being there as a supportive onlooker. If you’re listening to the words (or following along with a booklet if it’s in Greek or Slavonic or what have you), there’s no way to get around how grounded in the Scriptures it is, so ideally, I think the wedding service should serve as a way to make the non-Orthodox feel more at home with what’s happening, and I think it’s unfortunate that that isn’t what happens. The message of the service is, plainly, You’re married, and now God’s in charge, and it seems to me that that should be entirely unproblematic.

At the same time, what is evident from some of the weddings I’ve seen is that however earnest the participants, that message can be obscured by how the receiver sees the sender, and there isn’t an easy way around that.

If I were to make what would be intended as helpful suggestions — first of all, to everybody concerned, perspective is your friend. The wedding is a big event, but it’s not the marriage. Whatever happens at the wedding, theoretically you’re going to have to deal with each other for the duration. Compromise and getting along is part of the deal, both between spouses and with family; start now.

Second, to the couple, include your immediate family in at least some of the discussions with the priest. If you let them participate in those conversations, and give them a chance to ask their questions in the presence of the priest at a meeting that actually matters, they will at least feel included, what’s going on the day of will seem a lot less daunting, and there will be a lot less tension about things unexpressed. To the family, if your kids ask you to come to one of those meetings, go. Everybody will be happier.

To bride and groom: the great thing about an Orthodox wedding service is that it’s purpose-built. In terms of the specific parts, you don’t need to customize anything. If you want specific settings of the hymns or whatever, a specific cantor, specific choir members, particular crowns, multiple priests, that kind of thing, okay, but really, it’s already all there and ready to go. That’s a gift, not an imposition; it means you have less you have to worry about. The less you make it about you, the less subjective you make the service, the less you’re going to have to freak out about, and the less everybody else will see reason to be concerned.

To the groom, whatever the convert/cradle situation might be for you: part of Orthodox tradition is that, ideally, you get married in the bride’s hometown. What that would indicate to me is that there is supposed to be some visible deference on the part of the groom to the bride’s family, to say nothing of the bride, who is easily the most vulnerable person involved. To the extent that you’re able to do so, when the bride’s family says something, smile and keep your mouth shut. If it’s an issue with the service, let the bride handle it, or, if you’ve been good about inviting the family to the meetings with the priest, tell the priest, and let him handle it with the family. Most important: let it go, whatever it is — start keeping a ledger of your sacrifices now and you aren’t likely going to stop.

To the bride: it’ll all be okay.

To everybody else: it’s an hour out of your life. You’ll live. Listen to the service, read along, whatever, but keep in mind that the message is, You’re married; now God’s in charge. Every part of the service expresses that somehow; if you want something to do to engage what’s going on and watching and following along isn’t enough, then ask yourself as the service goes on, how does this part of the service express that message? If that doesn’t do it for you, well, again, it’s an hour out of your life, and it’s not about you. Don’t worry; if it’s a proper Orthodox wedding, the reception is going to be a blast.

Suggestion to all concerned: wear comfortable shoes. Whatever the circumstances, you’ll be a lot less inclined to be grumpy by the end of the service.

Okay. I’ve got to write about the Akathistos hymn now. Pray for me.

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1 Response to “Checking in from Boston, and musings on weddings”



  1. 1 Linkage: on weddings | Orthogals Trackback on 12 December 2014 at 10:43 am

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