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Posts Tagged 'fr. nicholas samaras'

Listening at the reliquary and taking Pentecostals by surprise: in which the author visits the island of Aegina

Fr. Nicholas Samaras, of Ss. Constantine and Helen Church in West Nyack, New York, told me when he found out I was going to Greece, “You need to go to an island called Aegina. St. Nectarios is there.”

When you buy tickets online to go to an island, you’re e-mailed a confirmation number. This is not a ticket, as the e-mail rather forcefully reminds you; you have to redeem the confirmation number for your ticket at the boating line’s office no later than an hour and a half before the boat pushes off. As my boat was leaving at 8:50am, this meant needing to pick up my ticket no later than 7:20am; furthermore, this meant needing to be at the Ethniki Amyna metro station by roughly 6:30am, which, the 404 bus being what it is on the weekends, meant waiting for it starting around 6am, which meant being up by 5-5:30am.

(Of course, the Halandri metro station reopens shortly after I leave. Sigh. I’m going to have to come back just to develop an impression of the public transportation system when a good chunk of it isn’t closed.)

So anyway, last Saturday I stumbled, still half-asleep, out of the Piraeus train station at a little past 7am. To say the least, it was a bit of a zoo; this is the time of year when everybody in Athens flees for the islands. Hellenic Seaways was where I needed to pick up my ticket, and I realized I didn’t know where that was. I headed for the nearest big sign that said “Hellenic Seaways,” which actually led me into the office of a travel line bearing a different name.

“Excuse me,” I said, “I don’t think this is the right spot, but where do I need to go to pick up tickets for Hellenic Seaways?”

“Here,” they told me, and gave me my ticket. Um, okay.

Now, your ticket bears a gate number and the name of your boat. You would think, as I did, going off of the system in use in most airports, that gate numbers would be unique to individual boats. So, I merrily headed for gate E-8, thinking it would be obvious as soon as I got there where I needed to go.

So, the reality is, there are something like 10-20 boats per gate. It is good that I realized this, because I was sitting at a café being robbed blind sipping a mediocre at best double espresso for which I had paid 5 Euros at gate E-8 (word to the wise: don’t bother with the gate café, just get something at one of the many other cafés around the harbor) until 8:30, wondering why the heck I wasn’t seeing the 8:50 boat for Aegina anywhere. I realized, getting up and looking around some, that gate E-8 stretched quite far away from where I was sitting. Jogging over to the far side of gate E-8, there were multiple signs, kiosks, and offices telling me I was in Hellenic Seaways country, and while it hadn’t arrived yet, they showed the Flying Dolphin XV as being on their schedule to depart for Aegina at 8:50. It arrived shortly thereafter, and off we went. It’s only about 40 minutes there (Aegina is the closest island to Athens, I believe) — no time at all.

The marina in the town of Aegina is very charming; pistachio nut stands are everywhere (these evidently being one of the island’s big exports), there is no shortage of restaurants and cafés on the water, and plenty of bakeries and shops and so on and so forth.

There’s also a butcher shop right on the water that shows you exactly what you’re buying. From left to right, I believe we have a rabbit, a lamb, and a chicken:

Plus an outdoor public market:

I’ve mentioned before, I think, that Greeks are excellent at the hard sell; there were a couple of examples of that in particular I ran into on Aegina. One involved me going into a bakery where they had nothing posted on any of the pastries to tell you what they were; I would ask what a certain item was, and the game the person behind the counter played was that he would tell me, I repeated to make sure I understood, and he would take that as an order. It took me a tiropita and a zambontiropita before I realized what he was doing, at which point I stopped asking. Well, okay, to be honest, there was another factor at work here that I may have misunderstood, but I really don’t think so. I’ll explain what I mean in another post.

The other example I’ll get to shortly.

There’s also a beautiful church along the water, the Cathedral of the Dormition (also called Panagitsa). It evidently dates from 1806; one very distinctive characteristic of this church is that, in addition to the 2+ centuries of incense permeating the walls, there is a very strong smell of honey as you walk in from the beeswax candles. Like many churches here, there is an ambo, but curiously enough they have removed the steps leading up to it, leaving only the pulpit portion in what is a clear state of disuse.

On the other hand, this is what’s called a chandelier:

I walked around the harbor for a good couple of hours, simply taking things in (and unsuccessfully trying to engage an old man in a backgammon game). At that point, it seemed like a good plan to try to find St. Nectarios.

By the way, it is difficult to overstate the level of local devotion there is to St. Nectarios on Aegina; he is everywhere. Icons of him, to say nothing of other memorabilia, are in virtually every shop (as well as prominently displayed in the churches). The island of Aegina is very insistent that you know that it is St. Nectarios’ home. But you don’t know the half of it until you see the monastery.

I had originally looked at a map of the island and thought to myself, “Oh, the island isn’t all that wide; I can probably walk it.” It is an extremely good thing that I disposed of that folly and got on a bus. It was hot, it’s a lot farther than it looks, and the terrain is not exactly even. As it was, the bus was almost too hot.

The buses, by the way, are easy to find on the harbor and cheap — about a Euro and a half each way — and they take you right to the doorstep of the monastery. If you don’t know what you’re looking for, you’ll be standing on the bus, thinking to yourself that you wonder how you’ll know when you’ve reached the monastery, and then suddenly the bus is right in front of this:

And then you’re thinking to yourself, Oh. Well, that was easy, wasn’t it?

You can go to my Flickr page and peruse the pictures all you want; one of the main things I want to point out is that they’ve built two levels of galleries in the church, and the church is already freaking huge — as in, bigger than Holy Trinity in Indianapolis huge. This suggests that on 9 November, St. Nectarios’ feast day, they expect it to be packed to the rafters.

The other thing I want to point about the interior has to do with the chapel off to the south end of the nave, where some of the relics are. Particularly, the iconography — for example, here at the dome of the apse in the chapel (and I would look at the pictures of other frescoes in the chapel, too — time and space simply do not allow for a full discussion here). Does that look familiar? It should. The point is, here’s a holy man who died less than a century ago — for all I know, there is still a living memory of him somewhere. Despite being contemporary, he is still “discussed” iconographically in the same language as saints of antiquity. I suppose what I’m getting at is something I’ve said before — saints do not belong to a fixed time period. Someone is, or able to be, no more or less holy based on when they lived. In fact, we desperately need contemporary saints and to have such people in living memory presented to us in this way. It is one of the ways we are reminded of how to be Christlike, to have these models of holiness in our midst and thought of us as in continuity with (or in the tradition of, if you prefer) all of our other saints. It tells us that miracles still happen, that the Holy Spirit still moves among us, that Christ is still in our midst. Our saints need not, in fact must not, be limited to accounts from antiquity which we’re starting to talk ourselves out of believing. And local veneration is incredibly powerful — to look at an icon and to realize, “Hey, I’m standing right where that happened and where those people lived and breathed and did what they did,” is humbling beyond belief.

Speaking of humbling beyond belief, I will now tell you of the second hard sell I encountered.

I spent probably an hour or so in the church. After leaving, I started walking up the hill to the monastery proper. An old woman in what looked like a nun’s habit appeared out of nowhere, walked right towards me, and thrust an icon of St. Nectarios in my hands. “You need this,” she said in Greek. “You need St. Nectarios’ prayers for you. Fifty Euros.”

I had absolutely no idea what to do. This woman had two teeth. She had lines in her face like the Grand Canyon. Her voice had been sanded down with a lot of age. Worst yet, and what I never know how to deal with in such situations, was that there was an edge of desperation to her entire presentation that would slice through cement. I started to hand it back to her, saying gently in Greek, “Thank you, mother, but I need to think about it.”

She pushed it back towards me. “What’s there to think about?” she said. “The money doesn’t matter! What matters is that you have the prayers of this holy man blessing you and your life!” She made the Sign of the Cross in my direction, and then threw a prayer rope on top of the icon. “There, take that too.”

“No, really,” I said. “I should think about it.”

She tossed an icon of St. Marina and another prayer rope on top. “I’m telling you, the money doesn’t matter! What’s money when you have the prayers of these holy people in your life?” She hesitated a half-second, and then said, “Thirty Euros.”

“Thirty Euros?” I repeated.

“Thirty Euros.”

I gave in. It was clearly very, very important to her that I take these icons off her hands, and ultimately the thought which I couldn’t escape was, “What’s thirty Euros to me compared with what it would be to her?” I gave her the money, thanked her, and as I walked away I muttered to myself, “I just got hustled by a nun.”

Only about half of the monastery proper is open to the public; this includes two (much) smaller churches, the chapel where St. Nectarios’ body is , two bookstores, and then his cell is open as an exhibit. The main thing I want to talk about here is seeing the veneration of his body, and (to some extent) participating in it myself; this is something that up to this point was rather foreign to me as an Orthodox Christian in the United States, given that, of the three analogous examples I can think of, only two are actual glorified saints (Ss. Herman of Alaska and John Maximovitch) and all are in California or Alaska (the third is Fr. Seraphim Rose), meaning that they’re rather remote for somebody whose Orthodox Christian life has been spent in the Midwest thus far.

People knelt and prayed at the casket which held his bones; I saw pilgrims weeping; and strangest of all, I saw people pressing their ears to the reliquary, as though they were listening for some sound from within. I really didn’t know exactly where to put myself in all of this, to be honest; I lit a candle, and I prayed at the reliquary, but my emotional response wasn’t quite that demonstrative — which isn’t to say that I didn’t have one, I did, it was just rather internalized — and since I didn’t know what was going on with the listening thing, I didn’t do it.

I went into the bookstore and asked the woman behind the counter, “I’m Orthodox, but I’m American, and I’ve never seen anything like this before. Why do people listen at the body?” She wasn’t sure how to answer; she said that it was a way of honoring St. Nectarios with another sense, but she couldn’t quite articulate exactly how.

All told, I spent about four hours at the monastery; I had originally hoped to be able to stay for Vespers, but my boat back to Athens was leaving at 8pm, and the bus schedule didn’t quite line up to make things work. That’s okay; as I’ve had to tell myself a number of times, this won’t be the only time I come to this part of the world.

Let’s say that there was a lot about the monastery that was spiritually overwhelming, even if I didn’t necessarily understand everything I saw. Part of why I spent so much time there is that I kept returning to the body and to the other reliquaries — there was something pulling me back to them, something that I was supposed to learn from being there. I’m still figuring out exactly what that is.

From the monastery, I took the bus to to the Temple of Aphaia which, as I noted earlier, is said to form an equilateral triangle with the Parthenon in Athens and the Temple of Poseidon at Sounio. There really is something very cool about being able to walk around structures from antiquity like this; that said, I think I would have rather come here first and then gone to the monastery. My head was simply too occupied by what I had witnessed there to really be able to appreciate what all I was seeing at the ruin. The Temple of Aphaia is certainly fascinating intellectually, but I was very much someplace else spiritually, so it left me a little cold.

Even if that was the case, however, I have to say that there were some really beautiful views from the top of the hill. It is nice being someplace where one can see water and hills and mountains, I can’t deny that.

Something that was really bizarre: there was a father and son walking around the ruin, and I heard them speaking German. I addressed them in German, and we talked a bit. They were just in Greece for the weekend(!), and I found out that the boy would be going to high school in Boston. No, that’s not the weird part. The weird part was that I started sentences in German but kept finishing them in Greek. My mouth really, really, really wanted to default to Greek, and I had very real trouble staying in German. I kept having to apologize — luckily, they just laughed and took it in stride.

Anyway — I didn’t spent four hours at the Temple. More like one and a half.

I got on the bus back to the harbor. I had a Frappé (I am going to have to get a handheld mixer when I get back to the States so I can make these blasted things myself), and then settled down for a grilled fish dinner at Inomagirion, one of the waterfront restaurants. The fish was very good, as a local resident assured me (pictured left), and I had to agree with him, although he kept wanting to verify that it really was as good as he remembered. Being thankful for his help, I obliged a reasonable amount. (Best meal he’s had in weeks, I would have to guess.)

I tried to go to Vespers at Panagitsa before taking the boat back to Athens, but as it started at 7pm and was combined with 9th Hour, so I had to duck out at 7:30, when they had just begun “Lord I have cried…” Alas.

On the boat back to Athens, I became aware that the young (mid-20s, maybe) couple sitting next to me was American. Their names were Erin and Jeremy. We got to talking, and it turned out that they were Pentecostals of the Assemblies of God variety. Erin has been working for some time in the Dominican Republic for a ministry that deals with troubled youth called New Horizons; “If you’ve heard of us, it’s probably from bad publicity,” she said. “We get that a lot.” Well, there came a point in the conversation where I was asked point blank what I was, and I was obliged to tell them I was Orthodox (“Greek Orthodox,” I said, for purposes of convenience) — not that I had been hiding it, mind you. I brought up the St. Innocent Academy after she talked about New Horizons, for example.

Anyway, the point is, after I told them I was Orthodox, she got a funny look on her face. “Really?” she said. “I’m sorry — from the way you were talking, I would have thought you were Christian.”

Let’s not even go into what my inner monologue was doing at this stage of the game. I just smiled and said, “I am.”

“Really? I thought Greek Orthodox were like Catholics. Well, okay, so Greek Orthodox think of themselves as Christians?”

“Yes, we do.”

The funny look became an intensely puzzled look. “Like, do you guys have a personal relationship with Christ and all of that?”

“Absolutely,” I said, although the inner monologue continued without me — just not exactly in the same way you mean that…

“Well, okay, then what’s a basic summary of what you guys believe?”

“That’s the easiest question you could have possibly asked me,” I said. “It’s very simple, and it goes like this: ‘I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth…'” and I proceeded to recite the entire Creed for her.

The puzzled look got even moreso. “Okay, so then what’s the difference between Greek Orthodox and Pentecostal?”

Keep in mind we only had a forty minute boat ride.

I chose to explain, broadly, that we see a continuity, rather than a disconnection, of Christian history over the last 2,000 years, placing ourselves in line with that, and as such believe we are in continuity with the Church of the Apostles. And just today, I saw one of the latest heroes in that history, I thought to myself.

“Huh,” she said. It was clear she had never heard anybody talk this way before.

I don’t know what they will do with that, if anything; I spent a little bit more time with them after we got off the boat, helping them find a bus stop that would get them back to their hotel. (Boy, I sure hope it did. Some of the streets around Piraeus at night are a little sketchy.) They were nice folks, even if it still amazes me that… well, maybe it shouldn’t.

By the way, I asked Fr. Samaras about the whole business of pilgrams listening at St. Nectarios’ body. He said this:

People have reported, for years now, that they’ve heard the Saint tapping back, or have heard some kind of music, or the sound of a Bishop’s staff knocking. So, people continue to listen. […] This tradition only happens with Saint Nektarios, the people listening. It doesn’t happen anywhere else.

So, there you have it. Next time I’ll be preapred.

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A comment on “The vision of Fr. John Peck, in which the author sighs, ‘It’s all Greek to me'”

I just checked my spam comments, and there was one from a few days ago which was clearly not spam. It commented on “The vision of Fr. John Peck, in which the author sighs, ‘It’s all Greek to me’“, and was of enough substance that it seemed too bad that the post to which it referred had scrolled off the main page, so I repost it here (please read the post on which it comments for proper context):

John9 October 2008 at 8:02 pm

Fr. Peck little diatribe has no basis in fact, but instead is based on prejudice, ignorance and not a little anti-ethnic wishful thinking. He deserves to be sacked for his ingratitude and for his delusional pseudo-prophetic screed.

Here’s are the facts:

Excerpted from:

‘More Orthodox’ than the Orthodox
Christian Century, Dec 28, 2004 by John Dart

http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_26_121/ai_n8702767/pg_1?tag=artBody;col1

IT’S COMMONLY observed that converts to a faith are the most ardent defenders of it. That seems to be the case with American converts to Orthodoxy. The large number of converts attending Orthodox seminaries prompted Alexey D. Krindatch, a sociologist of religion, to wonder whether an “Americanization” of Eastern Orthodoxy might lie ahead. His conclusion: “Probably not.”

Responses from students at three seminaries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)–the two largest Orthodox bodies in the U.S.–confirmed, he said, “the widespread notion that Protestant and Catholic converts tend to be ‘more Orthodox’ than persons who were born and raised” as Orthodox.

======
The “Americanization” of the the Orthodox Church in America is just a racist pipedream.

And here is the article to which he refers in full:

‘More Orthodox’ than the Orthodox

IT’S COMMONLY observed that converts to a faith are the most ardent defenders of it. That seems to be the case with American converts to Orthodoxy. The large number of converts attending Orthodox seminaries prompted Alexey D. Krindatch, a sociologist of religion, to wonder whether an “Americanization” of Eastern Orthodoxy might lie ahead. His conclusion: “Probably not.”

Responses from students at three seminaries of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)–the two largest Orthodox bodies in the U.S.–confirmed, he said, “the widespread notion that Protestant and Catholic converts tend to be ‘more Orthodox’ than persons who were born and raised” as Orthodox.

The converts expressed more conservative attitudes than Orthodox-born seminarians did on, for instance, accepting the authority of bishops and discouraging ecumenical worship and religiously mixed marriages. Krindatch reported his findings at the annual meeting of the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion.

Asked why the tradition-bound, liturgically intricate Orthodox churches are attracting converts, Krindatch suggested in an interview that many of the former evangelical Protestants studying for the Orthodox priesthood see a “discrepancy” between their strong personal faith “and the fact that their churches have no historical roots in original Christianity, no apostolic succession and no liturgical atmosphere.”

In the case of former Catholics and Episcopalians, however, converts are attempting to “return to their churches’ religious experiences of 20 to 30 years ago, when their churches were more ‘traditional.'”

While both Orthodox-born seminarians and the converts were relatively similar in religious upbringing, education and family income level, the former evangelicals “come from much wealthier families” that were very active churchgoers. The ex-evangelicals were more likely to have a higher level of secular education as well as businessmen fathers, and they “were more definite in their plans to be ordained and serve as priests” than were their classmates.

Krindatch surveyed seminarians at Holy Cross (Greek Orthodox) Seminary in the Boston suburb of Brookline, where 25 percent of the students are converts, and at two OCA seminaries, St. Vladimir’s in Crestwood, New York, and St. Tikhon’s in South Canaan, Pennsylvania. The majority of the students at the latter two are converts, he said.

Krindatch recently was named director for campus ministry and church growth at the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute, which is part of the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California. Krindatch, a faculty member at the Institute of Geography in Moscow, had been doing his research as a visiting scholar at the Institute for the Study of American Religion in Santa Barbara, California.

The institute in Berkeley previously has dealt mainly with theological and historical issues, said Krindatch, but it “hopes to concentrate its future studies more on the contemporary situation and social changes within various American Orthodox churches.”

Change has been slow by Western standards. In his survey, Krindatch found that 57 to 64 percent of convert seminarians agree that while most Orthodox Christians “are socially integrated into American society, the Orthodox churches as institutions are still perceived by the vast majority of Americans as “immigrant communities,” compared to 46 percent of Orthodox-born who say that. At the same time, the proportion of the most pessimistic seminarians–those who say “the Orthodox churches still are and will remain ‘strangers’ to American society”–is higher among “cradle Orthodox” than among convert seminarians.

Cradle Orthodox students are also more pessimistic than the converts that the ethnically oriented Orthodox churches eventually will gain autonomy from mother churches abroad, or that a unified American Eastern Orthodox Church will emerge in decades to come.

Ex-Protestant seminarians may hope for ecumenical progress within Orthodoxy, but they tend to reject joint ecumenical prayers or services with non-Orthodox. Also, a significant proportion of both ex-Catholic (34 percent) and ex-Protestant (.36 percent of ex-mainliners and 52 percent of ex-evangelicals) seminarians say that Orthodox priests should try hard to discourage mixed marriages. Seminarians raised in Orthodox churches are somewhat more lenient on the issue, though not as accommodating as current priests in Orthodox parishes.

A separate survey of priests in Greek and OCA parishes found that two-thirds take a more liberal position on mixed marriages–but stay within church guidelines. In other words, priests would conduct such weddings when they are held in the Orthodox Church, and would encourage the non-Orthodox partner to join the church. “Only a minority of all seminarians (31 percent of OCA seminarians, 48 percent of Greek Orthodox seminarians) share the same view,” Krindatch said.

Krindatch acknowledged that the seminarians’ conservative stances, even if reflective of a generational trend, may evolve during “actual work in the parishes.”

John Dart is the CENTURY’S news editor.

COPYRIGHT 2004 The Christian Century Foundation

I will comment in the combox.

The vision of Fr. John Peck, in which the author sighs, “It’s all Greek to me”

Read my re-post of Fr. John Peck’s “The Orthodox Church of Tomorrow” first, and possibly Anna Pougas’ post on American Orthodoxy as background if you haven’t already.

When I was in New York for the Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius conference, my friends Peter and Soula called me, saying they just wanted to let me know I was hanging out with them before I headed home. The way this was going to be best effected was for me to spend Sunday morning with them, and they were good enough to pick me up at St. Vlad’s and take me out to Ss. Constantine and Helen Orthodox Church, a Greek parish in West Nyack, New York. Oh, by the way, they told me as we walked in, you’re helping with Orthros.

The priest, Fr. Nicholas Samaras, arrived. He gave me a blessing and asked where I was from. “Bloomington, Indiana,” I replied. He sized me up a bit and said, “Ah. Sounds like a good place to be from.”

Orthros/Matins wasn’t a problem; Mr. Michaels, their psaltis, would sing a verse of something in Greek, I’d sing a verse of something in English (occasionally in Greek if I knew it well enough), then Peter would alternate between Greek and English, and Soula read the psalms and prayers. It was a wonderful church in which to sing; it’s a big building with a high ceiling, and you don’t feel like you have to push at all to be heard (unlike what I’m used to, alas).

The Divine Liturgy was sung by a choir rather than the psaltai (ευχαριστώ πολυ Στέφανε αλλά τώρα είμαι συγκεχυμένος — είναι οι ψάλτες ή οι ψάλται;), but Peter and I alternated on verses for the antiphons with the choir singing the refrains. It was also mentioned to me, “Usually somebody chants the Epistle in Greek and somebody else reads it in English, but the guy who chants it isn’t here — do you want to chant it in English?” And so I did. (I purposefully don’t travel with my reader’s cassock, but this was a morning where I wished I’d had it.)

After the Liturgy, I went through the line to venerate the priest’s cross and get a blessing. Fr. Samaras blessed me and said, “Um… don’t move. Just… just don’t go anywhere for a moment.” Uh oh, I thought. I stepped on some toes and I’m going to hear about manners when one is a guest. When all had been blessed, he turned to me and said, “What time do you have?”

I looked at my watch. “Quarter after twelve.”

“Ah, okay. And how long will it take to move you and your wife out here?”

Following that, there were a couple of very kind older gentlemen who thumped me on the chest and told me, “Young man, you’ve got a gift from God.” Peter’s parents (who I had just met for the first time a week and a half earlier when they had visited Bloomingon) referred to me as “family”. Fr. Samaras was very serious about wanting to keep in touch, and we’ve kept up a correspondence since. Don’t tell me that Greeks (to say nothing of New Yorkers!) aren’t welcoming; I don’t want to hear it. I’ve also found Holy Assumption Church in Scottsdale, AZ to be very welcoming with a terrific priest, as well as Holy Apostles in Shoreline, WA (where I attended my very first Divine Liturgy). The blanket assumption that “Greeks would prefer non-Greeks to stay away” is categorically false; let’s make that clear.

I also think that the convert or the inquirer who finds himself/herself in a community with a strong ethnic contingent needs to see such a situation as a gift from God, and to approach such a parish community with a dollop of humility roughly the same size as the dollop of sour cream which I put on my nachos. The “ethnic enclave” temptation faces the convert every bit as much as anybody else — you get a community of converts who read some Lossky, Schmemann, Hopko, etc. when they were still Episcopalians a couple of years ago, and there’s a danger of an exclusivist mindset developing, very similar to what the Greeks (or the Russians, or the Romanians, or whomever) get accused of having. Reading everything in a book doesn’t make you Orthodox; you can’t teach yourself to be Orthodox, period (thank you, Seraphim Danckaert, for sharing those words of wisdom oh so long ago; they’ve stuck with me). Whenever a convert/inquirer complains about the icons looking too weird or the music sounding too strange or the language being wrong (I know of one guy for whom liturgical English isn’t close enough to “the language of the people”, let alone Greek, Slavonic, or what have you), my first thought is simply, “You’re not ready yet.” There are some things you don’t like which you have to accept with humility, however good your reasons for not liking them seem to you at the time. Icons, incense, chant, vestments… and, yes, depending on where you wind up, pews, organs, people talking during Holy Communion, and liturgical schedules that are Sunday-only. Regardless, the aforementioned gift from God is the chance to learn the faith from people who have lived it for generations, however imperfectly, rather than building up a Platonic ideal in your head from books up to which no actual parish in the world can ever hope to measure. Learning the Orthodox Christian faith from somebody’s grandmother, believe it or not, is going to actually teach a person a lot more about what it means to live the life than reading Schmemann, even if it means having to move out to aisles to prostrate during the Prayer of St. Ephraim the Syrian because pews get in the way otherwise. (And I say that as somebody who thinks you can never read enough Schmemann.) To the people who claim that we need an idiomatically and uniquely “American” cultural expression of Orthodox Christianity and we need it yesterday, I say: chill, guys. Receive the Tradition. Let it change you and yours for a couple of generations (at least) before deciding it needs updating.

All that said, I recognize that not everybody can go to your typical Greek parish and just help sing Matins or chant the Epistle as nothing more than a visitor passing through, and not everybody has a chance (or the interest, or overall inclination or ability) to take a Greek class (ancient or modern), and not everybody knows people where they’re traveling who can be a conduit to other people in the parish. So, I don’t pretend my experience, which in general has been unique, is necessarily the general case. Let’s also not pretend that every experience in every parish in every jurisdiction I’ve ever visited has been positive; they have not. I also don’t wish to pretend that I’ve never visited a parish and turned my nose up at it because it didn’t meet my expectations or cater to me; I most certainly have, and five years later — to demonstrate God’s sense of humor — I’m still there, my wife and I were chrismated there, we’ve seen four godchildren received into the faith, I’m the choir director/psaltis, and I’m on the parish council. Those people are my family in every sense of the word. First impressions really can be meaningless.

Coming on the heels of the situation regarding Fr. John Peck’s article is wind I caught yesterday of how Sunday of Orthodoxy Vespers might work this coming winter. Holy Trinity, the big Greek parish in Indianapolis, wants to host; they’re just about to finish building the Indy regional campus of Hagia Sophia, and it will be, from a standpoint of both capacity and providing an exemplar of traditional Byzantine architecture, the ideal place to hold it.

There’s a catch, however — the choir made up of Orthodox singers from around the entire Indianapolis metro area (including Bloomington)? Gone. Part of the deal is, if you do it at Holy Trinity, you do everything in-house — their psaltai/psaltes (whichever it is — I’m confused now), their music, their organ (probably), end of story. That this runs entirely counter to the spirit of how the Indianapolis clergy have always tried to celebrate Sunday of Orthodoxy seems to be not an entirely relevant point. Okay, fine, that’s their right — but why suddenly take a hard line when it comes to playing with others?

To come back to Fr. John Peck, why come down so hard on a priest who, basically, is saying that those who identify with Orthodox Christianity on a basis of ethnicity and heritage are going to have to learn how to get along with those who identify on a basis of faith if they want the Church to survive in the United States? I don’t agree with everything Fr. John said; I think his view of the future is a little too rosy, but I think he’s got the point hands-down that the makeup of the clergy coming out of the next several class years of our seminaries is going to change some things, big time. What some want to hear or not, I nonetheless fail to see how what he says is hostile or out of line. It may not necessarily be what some people want to hear, but is it really that threatening for a priest to point out what is painfully obvious — that, as Fr. Seraphim Rose said thirty years ago, “ethnic Orthodoxy” is a dead end? The current generation, by and large, either isn’t learning the faith or aren’t learning to care about the faith — I know of priest’s kids at IU who, so far as I know, have never darkened the door of All Saints since maybe the first Sunday of classes their freshman year. My Greek class right now is three-quarters full of Greek American kids, some of whom, I’ve found, didn’t even know there was a church in Bloomington until I told them about it, and at whom I’ll be surprised (but pleasantly so) if they decide to come to a service. Now, let’s clarify — that’s not an “Orthodox problem,” but rather an “everybody problem”. Convincing kids they need church while they’re in college doesn’t work until they, well, realize they need church while they’re in college. But Greek/Russian/Serbian/Romanian/Albanian/whateverian families also need to realize that their kids aren’t necessarily picking up the faith of their forebears any better than their Anglo counterparts at Tenth United Methodist Church down the street — just because they have a language and a festival to associate with it doesn’t mean it sticks better. (Hats off to some very exceptional kids I know for whom it has stuck, and stuck very well. You know who you are and why I know you. You’re doing it right, guys.)

I wonder sometimes if part of the problem is money. By and large — that is, excluding Tom Hanks and maybe Chris Hillman (late of The Byrds and The Desert Rose Band), the converts coming into Orthodox Christianity are not wealthy people, at least based on what I’ve seen; we all do what we can, to be sure, but for example, my parish right now wouldn’t be able to build the janitor’s closet of Holy Trinity’s new building. We’re a community of mostly middle-to-lower class working folks as well as people from the university community, and we’re able to keep the lights on in our humble “temporary” space and pay our priest’s salary and benefits without much left over. That seems to be fairly representative of what I’ve seen in the parishes I’ve visited — converts keep the candle fund replenished, and the Greek and Lebanese doctors and lawyers, if there are any in the community to begin with, are the ones paying for the frescoing of the walls and the maintenance of the dome. Enough converts for a critical mass and the small, cradle-less community can at least be self-sustaining, but building even a simple, small traditional Byzantine church is going to be beyond the means of that kind of group. Could it be that for some “ethnic” Orthodox who actually do write substantial checks and whose grandfather may have helped to carve the iconostasis, they just don’t want to be told what to do and held in contempt by somebody who was a Baptist perhaps as recently as a year ago and whose offering might buy the incense for Holy Week? That’s perhaps ignoring the lesson of the widow’s mite, but I know from my own experience that the convert who’s given their two pennies can probably still pick up a broom or wash a dish, and not to put too fine a point on it, but that might even be what’s needed from them more than a discussion of how Byzantine chant is driving non-Greek inquirers away or the icons aren’t Byzantine- (or Russian-) looking enough.

One more thought, and then I think my bag of prolix dust is empty for the evening. There is a certain irony to me that the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who in the early/mid-’80s suddenly wouldn’t give the Evangelical Orthodox the time of day (perhaps not for terrible reasons, depending on whose version of the story you’re hearing), has become a haven for certain former EOC communities who broke off from Antioch.

My hope is that Fr. John Peck comes out of this okay. What he had to say would ideally generate a conversation which needs to happen, and that isn’t anything over which he should be penalized. If he doesn’t, I hope he sticks to his guns — Antioch would probably take him with open arms (assuming a canonical release — Antioch is kinda touchy about such things). Pray for him, pray for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and pray that all Orthodox in America see something in Fr. John’s article, and the response it has received, from which they can learn.

Qu’est-ce que je fais?

Brief check-in —

Many thanks to all of you who visited because of Eirenikon‘s links to my Fellowship of Ss. Alban and Sergius write-ups; I hope you stay for awhile.

My French reading class started last Friday. I’m finding that the Latin and the Greek I’ve had in the four years since the last time I set foot in a French classroom is helping immensely; I’ve likely forgotten far more than I realize, but so far so good regardless. (I doubt very sincerely that Syriac is helping my French in the least.) We have two translation projects in the class; one which will be a text the instructor provides, and the other which will be a text of our own choosing — the idea is that we read a piece of scholarship (or a piece of a piece — three pages maximum) in our own fields. As it works out, there’s an article Fr. John Meyendorff wrote called “Byzance: l’image du Christ d’après Théodore Studite,” and it’s exactly three pages long. Sounds like a winner to me.

Reading-wise — well, there’s a pile of books on my wife’s side of the bed (and yes, I mean on her side of the bed; it keeps me from getting used to taking up the whole mattress in her absence), and it contains some of the following:

  • The Spiritual World of St. Isaac the Syrian, Bp. Hilarion Alfeyev. Yes, still.
  • Sunday Matins in the Byzantine Cathedral Rite, Alexander Lingas. Yes, still (and I have, alas, confirmation from the publisher that this will not be released on 28 June, as I suspected, and they frankly have no idea when it will be published, characterizing it only as “severely delayed”).
  • The Glory of the Lord, Vol. 1: Seeing the Form, Hans Urs von Balthasar. I will note the following fun statistics about this particular book: it is volume one of seven, this volume alone is six hundred pages plus, and the “introduction” is over a hundred pages. I’m reading this because somebody made the professional suggestion that my interests in particular will ultimately be a lot more marketable if I can tie Balthasar in somehow. What I will say for now is that I really hope that I’m not someday told that I can’t claim to have read this unless I’ve done so in German; it’s going slowly enough in English.
  • The Church of the Triune God: The Cyprus Agreed Statement of the International Commission for Anglican-Orthodox Theological Dialogue.
  • An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, St. John of Damascus (as found in the Schaff-edited Nicene & Post-Nicene Fathers series).
  • A Patristic Greek Reader, Rodney Whitacre.
  • Hands of the Saddlemaker, Fr. Nicholas Samaras. I wound up at Fr. Samaras’ (as he prefers to be called) parish for Divine Liturgy the last day I was in New York for the Fellowship conference; this is a good story which I will tell later.

I also have various and sundry writing projects happening, scholarly and otherwise, some of which I might actually complete before the entropic cessation of the universe’s existence. My notes and answer key for Hansen & Quinn unit 3 I might even have done more quickly than that.

I hope to be able to distill the Fellowship experience into a magazine aricle; Prof. William Tighe is already doing the write-up for Touchstone, but we’ll see.

…and that’s the news from Lake Wifebegone, where the air conditioner is always on, the kitchen table is always messy, and the house always feels empty.


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