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Posts Tagged 'missions'

Center, periphery, and shaking the dust off one’s feet (long)

(Warning: long and rambly. Sorry.)

This has been a difficult semester.

I’m at the point in my program where I’m having to jump over the big hurdles; this is no bad thing on the face of it, because I don’t want to be in grad school forever, I’d like to have a real job before I’m 40, and there are certain funding realities that mean it’s in my best interests to get to candidacy/ABD (“All But Dissertation”) sooner than later. To that end, this year has been all about getting myself through those hoops. Fall term I spent getting my Latin back in shape, I got that exam out of the way back in January, and now I’m three weeks out from my oral qualifying exams. Assuming all is well there, then I have a paper that I need to rework into a dissertation proposal, and then I can defend that before the end of April. Once I’m on the other side of all of that, then there are certain kinds of doors I can knock on. I don’t necessarily have to go knocking on them, since I still have two years of funding left and I’m pretty sure that if push comes to shove I can get the dissertation done in one year, but on the other hand, we’ve now been in Bloomington ten years, and we’re very much feeling like our own internal sell-by date has passed for this town. It would be very much to our advantage, on a few fronts, to be able to move on soon, and some of the research/teaching fellowship opportunities that are out there once both Barretts have unlocked the PhD candidacy achievement would be more than helpful in allowing us to move on.

See, we’ve basically been here long enough that we’ve outlasted just about everybody who moved here within our first two or three years. It’s one of the very weird things that can happen in this kind of town; you come here for one reason, thinking you’ll be in and out in two years, three years max, and then life takes a turn that keeps you here. It can be very subtle, really; it becomes clear that there’s really not a ton here that can keep you sufficiently busy if you’re not on one of a handful of very specific tracks, but somehow there’s a center of gravity here that can hold you in place even when you don’t really want it to. (A friend of mine calls this “getting Bloomingtoned”.) Part of it is that it’s logistically a difficult town to get in and out of; you can’t just hop a plane or train and be on your merry way. Part of it is that it can seem like there should be plenty to do here if you can just come up with the right opportunity; some of those opportunities only cycle through once a year, and by the time you realize that they’ve passed you by for the year it’s too late to make plans to do something someplace else, so you’re stuck until the window re-opens. Maybe you manage to make one of those opportunities work, and then the next thing you know, you’ve looked up and four years have passed. Eventually, one way or the other, stay here long enough, and not only will most of your friends have left, but the avenues that bring new arrivals into your social circle will re-orient around other people.

We’re feeling this right now particularly keenly, at least in part, because of Theodore. We just don’t have any access to family out here; my mom is in Alaska, Megan’s is in Washington state, my sisters are in Arizona and Oregon, and Megan’s brothers are in Hawaii, eastern Washington state, and Chicago. (Chicago seems like it shouldn’t be that bad, but it’s a lot harder than you might assume.) The plan this academic year was that theoretically our respective teaching/research schedules were going to allow for somebody to always be at home; well, that didn’t quite work out. Flesh of My Flesh got a last-minute (like, three weeks into the semester) teaching reassignment that threw a massive wrench into our schedules, and what we’ve realized is that just about everybody we would have asked for help in terms of watching the Fruit of My Loins for an hour here or an hour there has moved on. Every day has really turned into a juggling act, and it’s been hard to manage with basically not much local social network left.

One of the other things that’s contributed to feeling this diminution of our social circle is the fact that we’re no longer hooked in to the parish that is ostensibly local to Bloomington. (You perhaps notice that I’ve phrased that somewhat circuitously. That’s intentional, and I’ll come back to that.) Since January, we’ve been going to Holy Apostles Greek Orthodox Church in Indianapolis; it’s one of the shorter drives, they’ve been very nice and welcoming, they’ve fawned over Theodore, and they’ve been receptive of what I have to offer in the way of chanting. They also only meet twice a month, which means that we’re not missing out on much by commuting. But, even being one of the shorter drives, it’s still an hour and fifteen minutes away, and it means that our contact with the community is by necessity pretty sporadic. Anyway, the upshot of all of this is that a couple of weeks ago, when all three of us got really sick simultaneously, a friend of ours in Indianapolis who, like us, used to go to All Saints, asked us — “Is anybody checking in on you guys?” I just had to shrug and say, who’s left to do so?

Last week, I found out that a good friend of mine, whose time here has been very much the definition of “getting Bloomingtoned” (he and his wife moved here to be close to family and to apply for grad school; the family moved away shortly thereafter, grad school didn’t work out, and they kind of got snookered into staying indefinitely, under somewhat less than ideal employment conditions, for reasons I won’t deal with specifically) and who has been waiting for the opportunity to go to seminary for the last seven years, will finally be going to seminary this fall, come hell or high water. Last I had heard, while certain necessities had managed to fall into place in the last month, they had decided to wait until fall 2014; well, no, they’re getting the heck out of Dodge and they’re doing it now. They’re done feeling stuck here; time to take the opportunity to move on. Another couple of friends of ours are also moving in May, we’ve only recently found out, but they just arrived last May. The wife was starting a PhD program in education and the husband was doing some exploratory things for nursing, and, well, let’s just say that none of that really worked out as intended. They still thought that they’d stick around Bloomington for a few years simply to try to be rooted someplace for a little while, but as I found out, in the last few weeks they’ve seen that that way lies madness, and they’re moving back to their home state in a couple of months. They are, in other words, determined to avoid “getting Bloomingtoned”. I am happy for all of those folks. At the same time, much of our small handful of remaining friends here is also moving on to greener pastures come May, and we’re really starting to feel more alone than we have in awhile.

But my point here isn’t really to complain; my point is to give a personal window into the weird way this town works. To use theoretical terms, the way center and periphery function here is a bit tough to wrap one’s brain around. One way to look at it is that Indianapolis is a center, and Bloomington is on the periphery; some might argue that actually Chicago is the center, Indianapolis is part of Chicago’s periphery, and Bloomington amounts to the outer reaches of the solar system. Well, maybe; I tend to think that Indianapolis and Chicago are both centers; culturally, my impression is that northwestern Indiana seems to rely more on Chicago as a center, and central Indiana seems to rely more on Indianapolis as the center (which is to say, it feels a lot like a slightly rougher-around-the-edges version of Ohio). But then, Bloomington is, in its own way, also a center — Indiana University is here, for example, which makes it a particular kind of center. It’s not what anybody would call a “world class city”, but it neither tries to be nor wants to be, and there’s enough activity here for there to be surrounding areas that consider Bloomington to be “town”, which means that Bloomington has its own periphery.

The trouble with Bloomington being a center is that, even at a mere hour away from Indianapolis, it’s a pretty isolated center. It’s a short drive that feels long, partially because you don’t actually get to make it on a real highway; you’ve got a couple of choices of state highways that, instead of overpasses, have intersections and therefore stoplights, it also feels long partially because so there is so little between here and there. Its nature as an isolated center has let it become something of a SWPL paradise for people who can afford it; we’ve got a food co-op with three (soon to be four) locations, we’ve got a whole street of different kinds of ethnic restaurants (no real Greek restaurant, alas), we’ve got culture provided by the university, we’ve got all kinds of green initiatives, we’ve got birthing subculture, we’ve got a winery, we’ve got homebrewing galore, we’ve got alternative schools, we’ve got biking, and we sort of have buses. This has sort of led to Bloomington’s own kind of parochialism; the feds are supposed to build part of the I-69 corridor going through here, and the SWPL folks do not want it in any form at any price. Probably if there were a commuter train between here and Indianapolis, that’d be one thing (and I myself would love such an option, because I hate the drive), but on the whole, they like Bloomington the way it is.

Well, fair enough, but then there’s a whole separate crowd that lives here, one that lives more than 2-3 miles from the university campus, that actually doesn’t see the university as the economic center of the town; they see it, rather, as mostly irrelevant at best and an unwelcome attempt to co-opt the kind of life they had 15-20 years ago. “The university is actually only a small part of the picture,” a lifelong resident told me once, telling me that the only people who see IU as rooting the activity of Bloomington are people who work for IU. “Bloomington’s main economic driving force right now is retirement,” he said.

See, 15-20 years ago, Bloomington’s economy was far more diverse in general; there were the quarries, there was RCA, there was Otis Elevator — you had a substantial blue collar sector, in other words, that could co-exist, however uneasily (see the movie Breaking Away), with the eggheads, the retailers, and the burger-flippers. All of that’s gone now, for all intents and purposes; my first year here, I worked for Kinko’s FedEx Office for a few months, and my manager was a guy who had worked for years in management at RCA. It was a great job; eventually the plant relocated most of the labor “south of the border”, as it were, and laid him off. They called him up the day after they would have had to bring him back at his old salary with full benefits and pension, and offered him his old job with no benefits, no pension, and half the salary. As he told me, “I had two words for them that weren’t happy birthday.”

So the question then becomes — how do you lure talented people here, and how do you keep them? You used to be able (I almost wrote “You used to could” — I’ve been here too long) to do it with the cost of living. The IU Jacobs School of Music voice faculty became known as “the graveyard of the Met” because they could offer star singers past their prime a salary that looked small, but in the context of a cost of living that was negligible compared to what they were used to in New York. But that was 50, 60 years ago; Bloomington now has the highest cost of living in the state.

The university certainly gets people here, both in terms of faculty and students, but a chunk of those people aren’t really here to stay. If you’re here for a terminal graduate degree, it’s almost a foregone conclusion that you aren’t going to be getting a job here. That’s just not how major universities work. It might have been a different story 30-40 years ago, but not now. There are exceptions, sort of; if the completion of your PhD times out nicely with a faculty opening, then you might get a yearlong Visiting Lecturer appointment while they do a search, but you’re not realistically going to have a shot at the tenure track position. That said, there are people who come here, fall in love with the place, and decide that they’ll be Dr. Broompusher just so that they don’t have to leave. If you’re really creative you can find ways to carve out niches for yourself, but often these can turn into ways of making a living as a self-promoter.

When I was working in support staff jobs for the university, one of the things I discovered was that a lot of longtimer secretaries and such had been gradually pushed further and further out to the outlying areas of Bloomington. Basically, if you work for the university, unless you’re faculty or in the professional track of administration, you can’t really afford to live anywhere near it — partially because East Coast undergrads whose parents are used to New York and New Jersey prices have bid up the cost of housing. We’ve experienced that a bit ourselves; the apartment that we lived in our first couple of years here was about a 15-minute walk to campus, and it was in undergrad party central. It was $850/month the first year (incidentally, only $100/month less than our apartment in Seattle); it got bumped up to $950 the second year, and then they wanted to jack it up another $100 the third year. We said no, and the very next day they were showing it. They ultimately rented it for $2,000 a month.

Anyway, the point is, Bloomington seems to function as a center, at least in some ways, and they’ve created some of their own periphery. But it’s also a periphery in its own way — it’s a periphery that’s sort of a center among other peripheries. One of the results seems to be that there is a lot of socio-economic elbowing and jostling here, and a lot of cultural discomfort amongst the different strata.

So — and this really is my main point — what do you do as a church in such a situation? Well, normally, the way this seems to work out is that people on the periphery go to their churches, people in the center go to their churches, and you’ve got different cultural groups instinctively coming together at their respective churches. You certainly see that here; you’ve got Primitive Baptist communities in some of the areas a half hour away, you’ve got Campbell/Stone and Pentecostal and Baptist churches out in the outskirts of Bloomington, you’ve got the conservative Catholic parish way out in the northwest corner of town, you’ve got the moderate suburban Catholic parish less than a mile away from the campus, and you’ve got the ultra-liberal Newman Center that hosts the Dalai Lama when he’s here (“St. Paul Outside the Faith” as I’ve heard conservative Catholics call it) right on campus. On the main commercial drag through the university’s part of town, you’ve got the big Methodist church, the Episcopal church, the Disciples of Christ church. And so on.

So where do the Orthodox fit into such a picture? Well, here in Bloomington, they kind of don’t. There is one Orthodox church here, and the idea is that it serves all the Orthodox in Bloomington and can be a home for Orthodox college students and inquirers for as long as they need it. That’s a lovely idea, but how does that work out in practice given the situation that’s here? And, again, it kind of doesn’t. The problem is that All Saints has intentionally located itself in the periphery; it’s six miles from campus, two and a half miles into unincorporated county. It’s at the intersection of a couple of country roads that are neither pedestrian nor bike friendly; I used to say that if I lived across the street I’d still drive. As a result, it’s not easily accesible from the center, and in the time I was there, I saw the demographic shift substantially away from the center and more towards the rest of the periphery. And yet, it’s ostensibly the church that is serving the center, even though, for all intents and purposes, it doesn’t, and it doesn’t really want to, either. You can’t really elide all of the geographic, socio-economic, and ethnic differences all at the same time with a little shoebox church out in the middle of nowhere; maybe in a perfect world you could, but we’re talking about human beings with human foibles, and it doesn’t really work that way. Anyway, the net effect is that being close to the center allows it to function as a central location for the other peripheries, but that means that it’s a very different culture and demographic than what you would have if it were actually in the center and serving the center. So, while there’s technically an Orthodox church with a Bloomington address, there isn’t really an Orthodox church in Bloomington.

The other tricky dynamic such a community has to navigate is one of long-term vs. short-term participation. There are people at All Saints who were born and raised in Bloomington and who will be buried in the church’s cemetery. There are people who moved there for school and decided to stay. There is the small handful of students that come and go. There are people who have moved there for various reasons, seen them not work out, and simply gotten stuck (“Bloomingtoned”). There are people like me, who came thinking we’d be here 2-3 years tops, 10 years later we’re still here, but we’re still planning on being gone sometime in the very near future — long-term short-termers, in other words. How do you work out issues of leadership within that kind of dynamic? In my case, I was on the parish council, the building committee, I directed the choir and chanted, I was OCF chair for a couple of years, and so on — and for everything I was involved in, I took the stance that, however long I’m here, I’m going to participate in decision-making as though I’m going to be here in 50 years. I took an approach of trying to build things that I would want to see still standing in my grandkids’ day, in other words. But should I have done that? Did I have any business taking the long view? Or does it simply throw off the balance if a short-termer, however long-term their short-term becomes, doesn’t defer on long-term issues to the people who actually will still be there in 50 years? Does it make any sense for somebody like me to be part of the effort to build a new church, for example, when I’m not planning to be around long enough to see it built? Are people like me just creating messes that other people will have to clean up? But then, what happens when the people who are going to be around aren’t willing to be involved?

What’s the priest’s role in figuring out such questions? It seems to me that there’s a complicated problem of priests not being able to afford to tell people with energy and ideas and willingness to participate that they need to sit things out, but at the same time, if the priest is letting those people spearhead projects that he’s not willing to take on or support himself, then at what point do such people just become, effectively, cheap labor in whom the “permanent” congregation has no investment?

I’ve mused a lot on this blog about mission and outreach. Orthodox outreach is something I care very deeply about; what I keep saying is, “If we actually believe we are what we say we are, we ought to be shouting it from the rooftops.” Taking mission seriously also, it seems to me, entails taking issues of community access seriously. How do you do that in a town like Bloomington? If you build a church in the center that is first and foremost for the center, probably people in the periphery aren’t ever going to care. In that sense, All Saints really is a mission to rural southern Indiana in a way that it couldn’t be if it were better positioned to serve the population center of Bloomington. But, at the same time, the way it has positioned itself, it’s close enough to the center to count as “the Orthodox church in Bloomington” even though it effectively isn’t, which makes it very difficult for anybody else to justify getting a mission started that would intentionally serve the center. The periphery folks have their church, and they’ve got it exactly the way they want it; it’s away from everything, it’s small, it’s relatively inexpensive, it’s low-maintenance, nobody bothers them, they don’t have to worry about a proliferation of the forces they keep away from (like the university) taking over. But then, since it’s the only game in town, you have the all-too-frequent phenomenon of certain kinds of inquirers or students walking in, realizing it’s not really intended for them, and leaving. Some of them commute to Indianapolis; some of them just don’t bother considering it further.

I was almost one of those people as an inquirer, ten years ago; not gonna lie. I walked in for the first time and really wanted to walk right out (this after getting lost on the way there because the directions on the website were unclear). I tried to make it work for nine and a half years, and it sort of did, for awhile. As I said, however, I’ve seen the demographic change while I’ve been there, and while there were still vestiges of the original self-conception as “the Orthodox church for all the Orthodox in Bloomington” 10 years ago, any sense of that is completely gone now. The families that started the church have moved away or passed on; there isn’t a second generation of those folks still hanging around. As a result, the demographic has narrowed, and it has also aged and moved outward. A new generation of converts is coming in, yes, but they’re coming in from even farther away, from points further southward. We have friends there, to be sure, and our very dear godparents, but that’s a different beast than fitting in to a community. The parish has developed, and continues to develop, a very strong identity as a church for rural southern Indiana; this isn’t a bad thing on the face of it, but it means that, after nine and a half years of trying to be part of the community, we find ourselves having to commute northward now, without a local community to speak of, at exactly the time when we find ourselves most in need of it. And we’re neither the first ones to have this problem here nor the only ones currently having to navigate it.

I should say that this isn’t an issue of university snobs not wanting to rub shoulders with the townies; that should be borne out by the fact that, as I said, we tried to make it work for almost ten years, and we were involved with community life on several fronts. The issue is that, sometimes, despite everybody’s best efforts, you just don’t fit in, and eventually you’re told, “Look, this isn’t going to get any better. It’s probably time for you to stop beating your head against the wall.” Also, as I said, we’re not the only ones in this boat.

The short-term solution, for my family, is making a concerted effort to get someplace where there can be a local community. This solution may neither be easy or soon in coming, so we just have to suck it up and deal at the moment. But what’s the long-term solution for this area, and what are the lessons here for others? For all I know, the lesson is, “Don’t let uppity college punks think they have any say in how we do things because it’ll just be an exercise in frustration for everybody”, but surely there’s something more constructive.

A final observation (yes, I know that coming from me that’s as empty a promise as hearing “Let us complete our prayer to the Lord” in an Orthodox service) — All Saints has been described to me as “an experiment in seeing if you can establish an Orthodox church somewhere where there have never been the usual reasons for having one”; that is, where there haven’t been groups of cradles who have established parishes. Well, to the extent that it has been successful, I’d argue it has done so by creating its own “ethnicity” that you belong to or you don’t. Maybe that’s what you have to do; I don’t know. The thing that’s very curious to me is that there have always been big groups of people here of ostensibly Orthodox heritage — Greeks and Russians in particular. I say sometimes that there is a big Greek community in Bloomington; they’ve started a church (the community that became All Saints was originally a group of Greeks and Arabs) and they’ve started several restaurants, but they’ve never started either a Greek church or a Greek restaurant. (Semi-untrue now — there’s Topo’s 403, but it’s less of a “Greek restaurant” and more of an upscale trendy place that happens to be somewhat Mediterranean-influenced.) There was a rembetiki concert here a couple of years ago that got around 200-250 of the Greeks in the area all under one roof; it made me very sad to hear one of them say, “It’s so nice to see everybody in one place. Maybe someday one of us will start a restaurant and we can all see each other there.” Also, the Russian Church Abroad had a mission here in the 1950s, but for one reason or another they never quite managed to keep it together. They fell apart in the ’60s, sort of re-integrated in the ’70s, and then fell apart for good in the ’80s. They started out with a building in the center of Bloomington and then moved out to the periphery, buying an auto garage out in the county. Then, as somebody told me irony-free, “the big money went with Antioch and we had to shut our doors.” (The infamous “Indiana listserv” was run by one of their minor clergy, who is now a priest in one of the “continuing” Russian Orthodox groups who didn’t like that ROCOR made nice with Moscow.) The people have been here (and are here); they just don’t seem to feel that they have any skin in the game — which, again, seems to me to be a problem with the periphery gathering in the center while simultaneously ignoring the center.

I don’t know what the answer is, and I don’t think I’ll be here long enough to see how it gets answered (noting that I’ve been wrong about such things before), but it seems to me that there’s an object lesson here. I’m just not sure what it is.

Two weeks and a day until exams. Please pray for me.

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Thoughts on new Orthodox missions

Yeah, I’ve been blogslacking lately. I’ve got a baby and I’m trying to take my exams, what can I say?

I recently offered an acquaintance some fairly detailed thoughts on establishing an Orthodox mission church. They’re very subjective and anecdotal, but they’re based on what I’ve seen in a parish just barely out of the mission stage itself. I’ve written about missions before, but not in anything beyond the briefest of brief treatments. I share here the meat of what I told this person, although I have edited certain details to make it a bit more general. I am interested to hear the thoughts of others on the issues I raise, so please, the floor is open.

Some theory first. From what I have seen, the biggest sign of the spiritual health of a given community, and simultaneously the biggest factor with respect to growth, is the willingness to invite friends to church. As silly as that may sound, Orthodox spirituality is relational and experiential; you can’t read or think your way into the faith, you have to actually go to church and be with other people, you have to actually receive the Eucharist and be in communion with the parish (and with the Church at large as well, something I’ll get to later), and so on. You have to actually do something, and how it is done involves a larger number of people than just yourself. To put it another way, because Orthodox Christianity is experiential, it is also relational; somebody has to tell us to “come and see”, and having come and having seen, it is then incumbent up on us to tell other people to “come and see”. None of this is anything you don’t already know from the friendships you had with Orthodox Christians before you converted, I’m sure. The point is, rearing our children in the Church aside, the Church grows principally through our relationships. I’m Orthodox because of two such relationships; an Orthodox friend stopped me (then an Episcopalian) while we were having a conversation that led to me recounting the Creed; when I got to the section on the Holy Spirit and said, “…who proceeds from the Father and the Son,” he stopped me and said, “No, that’s not how it goes.” That started a conversation with consequences, and then a year later, a Ukrainian friend of my wife’s asked if we would come with her to a blessing of Pascha baskets. Between the two relationships, we had experiences that got us asking questions, and the friends who prompted those experiences were able to be further resources. Subsequently, we had friends we took with us to church, and it has continued down the line. That first conversation about the Creed with my friend has generated something like four generations of converts.

Second, the whole “experiential” part is crucial. The first thing the Church is supposed to do is worship. And we’re supposed to do it well and beautifully, as you well know. Think about the story of the Kievan emissaries visiting Constantinople — they saw the Liturgy and reported back to Vladimir, “We knew not if we were in heaven or on earth — we only know that God dwells there among men, because we cannot forget that beauty.” The Liturgy, then, is epistemological — it’s not just the way we get our chant fix or have an excuse to look at icons or whatever; it is fundamentally the way we know God, and to the extent that that’s the case, it is evangelical. For us to say, “Come and see”, there has to be someplace for people to come to, and there has to be something for them to see.

So much for theory. What I would encourage you to think about, given all of those things, is this:

1) To the extent possible, be geographically accessible; ideally, someplace that might get casual foot traffic. That can be difficult given various economic realities, but particularly as a mission, at the very least it’s not going to do you any good for people to not have any idea how to find you or see you as difficult to get to.

2) Always remember that the church’s primary function is worship. It’s not to sell nut rolls, it’s not to have potlucks, it’s not even to hold Sunday school. These can all be great things, and I don’t criticize churches that do them as such, but I’ve encountered the mentality that says, “Well, people come to church for church, but they stay for the other things the church does. So, rather than concentrating on a worship space, better to make do with a space that allows you to get by for services while also allowing you to do some of those other things.” I suggest that’s exactly backwards. Certainly you have to allow for some economy of space and some clever use thereof when you’re getting started, but from a standpoint of mission and growth it will be better to have a space that allows you to liturgize as best you can while getting by for the coffee hour. I’ve seen missions and churches manage to be located near cafes or whatnot that are able to serve as the fellowship space; it’s potentially a way to be smart about space in the beginning. Along similar lines, make your first priority getting the rhythm of the liturgical life down. Remember St. John of Kronstadt — he did daily services with just his wife as the choir at first, and in the long run they couldn’t fit everybody into the church.

3) Find ways of being visible in the broader community, of contributing to local conversations, etc. If there’s some way you can find to be a leader on a particular local issue, do it. The point here is that, peculiarities of image and calendar aside, the church should be seen as integral, contributing entity of the local community as opposed to a colony of cranks. Food can certainly be a way to do this; there’s a reason people think of Greek festivals and poppyseed rolls when they think of Orthodox churches. Maybe you have a location that enables you to have a really wonderful ministry to the poor; maybe you sponsor picnics that are open to the public; maybe there’s a farmers’ market or community street fair or something where there’s the possibility of the parish having a table. Maybe you’re blessed to have a good singer or two at the outset; find a way that such a person might be able to use music to contribute to the community at large. If your location lends itself to such an effort, do the Sunday of Orthodoxy, Holy Friday, Elevation of the Cross, etc. processions someplace public. Maybe you’ve got a chunk of money to bring an interesting speaker in on some issue of import.

4) Seriously do not stress over the baggage of cultural “strangeness”, be those related to liturgy, calendar or whatever else. If people know first and foremost that they’re welcome at your hearth, they’ll be less freaked out over those kinds of things and more inclined to ask productive questions. Just greet them with open arms, make sure they can find the coffee afterward, and be prepared to explain the various “whys” as many times as is necessary. Emphasize what’s good about the distinctive things in a way that praises the good things people already know, and maybe shows how these distinctive qualities add other good things. The idea of “completion” (the real definition of “perfection”) rather than “replacement” is useful here.

5) Books are good, and a mission book counter/library or something like it is a universal in American Orthodox churches, but they can also be shortcuts that have consequences down the road. The personal connection is probably going to do more than any book by Schmemann or Rose possibly could. I’m a book guy, to be sure, and I’m a scholar by profession, so I’m all about the books, just so we’re clear. I spent hundreds of dollars on books in my couple of years as an inquirer, and being Orthodox has influenced my life in other ways that has led to further thousands of dollars spent on books. But in terms of the literature one tends to read as an inquirer/catechumen (at least from what I’ve seen), there’s a certain sameness, particularly in the convert testimonies. It’s useful to find a convert testimony that resonates with you, but there’s a lot more to it than that, and it’s going to be better found in the services and the prayers than in books. Ware’s (or McGuckin’s) The Orthodox Church for general background and history, Schmemann’s For the Life of the World for a compelling account of what the sacramental life means, Gillquist’s Becoming Orthodox for proof that even cultural Evangelicals can do it, and then perhaps Mathewes-Green for the personal account of the life, but beyond that, I’d really de-emphasize the books. Emphasize the relational and experiential (“Oh, you want to know about <topic X>? Then you should really make sure you come to <service Y> and/or talk to <person Z>”).

5a) Make sure that you’re smart about how you operate any retail sales like that. I’m familiar with a case where the parish bookstore was just ordering things from Light and Life at full price and then selling them at full price, then wondering why they weren’t selling anything. Wholesale relationships are reasonably easy to set up — Liturgica.com and Musica Russica for CDs, Conciliar Press for certain titles, etc. All it takes to start a good parish bookstore that’s self-sustaining in the long haul is $1000 and being smart with your wholesale accounts; a friend of mine did exactly that at his parish.

6) Certain jurisdictions make things very easy in the sense that there’s a way you do things, and you do it that way. Those very same jurisdictions also usually come with baggage arising from the perceived ties with “the tribe at prayer”, and the worry that this is going to wind up being all about building Little Byzantium or Little Beirut or Little St. Petersburg someplace. The truth is, Orthodoxy in an American setting is going to be American somehow just by virtue of the fact that Americans are doing it. Just take seriously that there is a way you’re receiving of how to do things, do it as well as you can, have doing it that way be the normal way you do things from the get go, and resist idiosyncrasy as much as possible. It’s a gift to be given an expression of the Tradition in a clear, whole-cloth form if you’re in a jurisdiction that does that; it takes a lot of guesswork out of things (there are at least four different things one might mean by “Antiochian practice”, for example). There will always be ways that things have to be adapted for particular contexts, but if you just normatively receive it and do it from the start the way they tell you, then you won’t have to deal with the shock to the system later of trying to do it. To return to something I touched on earlier, it will also help at least give you the sense of being in tune with the rest of your diocese/jurisdiction, even if you’re relatively isolated. Being idiosyncratic and isolated is not a good combination. If you want to be welcoming to Orthodox that show up down the road who are used to particular ethnic practices — well, in my experience, a Liturgy served faithfully according to Russian practice and a Liturgy served faithfully according to Greek practice have an awful lot in common. It’s at least going to be recognizably the same ethos, even if the details are different. It seems to me that the solution in America is to do it in reverent English (whether or not that includes thees and thous), don’t apologize for the rest of it, just be prepared to explain the “whys” over coffee afterward (or better yet, have them over for lunch and talk about it over a home-cooked meal).

Bottom line: be faithful, and God will give the increase.

A request…

A friend of mine, Michael Ewing, is going to Kenya in July as a short-term OCMC missionary. He will be helping to build churches there, and he hopes to become a permanent missionary for them once he is done with his Master’s degree. For the moment, he has to raise $4,000 for the July trip. Might you consider helping Michael out? Even if it’s only what seems to you to be a drop in the bucket, many drops make an ocean. You can support his mission here. Prayers are, of course, also most appreciated. Many thanks for your support of Michael, whatever form it takes!

Byzantine Chant, Authenticity, and Identity: Musicological Historiography Through the Eyes of Folklore

Wanting to keep the blog alive but not yet having time to devote to catching people up on what’s happening, I wanted to share this essay — it was written for my Modern Greek class last spring, and was heavily informed by an ethnomusicology seminar I was auditing on music and sacred experience. I thought about perhaps trying to publish it, and both my Greek instructor as well as the professor teaching the ethno seminar responded positively to it, but neither thought it was sufficiently in their field for it to be publishable in their circles. So, here it is for now. Some of these issues have been discussed here as well.

6 February 2012 — Removed for reasons I’m very happy about. I’ll say more later.

16 May 2012 — You can now find this essay in Greek Orthodox Theological Review, Vol. 55.1-4, pp. 181-98. Please contact me at rrbarret AT indiana DOT edu if you do not have access to a library system that has this available.

Mediterranean microtonal melismas are not unAmerican: making time for some musical musings

A few things have come out recently to which I’ve been meaning to respond, and I’m finally able to take a moment to do so.

First of all, the issue of AGAIN which just came out, among other things, reprints Fr. John Finley’s essay, “Authentic Church Music”. This was originally a talk given to the the AOCNA Conference on Missions and Evangelism in 2002, and I have seen it in at least two print publications since then — PSALM‘s newsletter, PSALM Notes, and now AGAIN. It is also, as the link shows, posted on the Antiochian website itself, so clearly Fr. John’s piece has found an audience. Give it a read; I’ll come back to this.

Second, there was this short piece which was run on PBS a couple of weeks ago. I’d love to find a way to embed it, but I haven’t yet, so click on the link, watch it, then come back.

Third, RightWingProf has a couple of posts on music with which I tend to agree. The earlier is here, and a more recent one is here. Go read those, too.

Okay. You got all of that?

I’ve met Fr. John Finley a number of times. I met him at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in 2004, and again at the PSALM National Conference in 2006. I also love his cookbook. He’s a good man, so far as I can tell he’s a good priest, and we know many of the same people. He’s also one of the people to whom I’ve tried talking about the choir school model (an idea which I just seem to have the darndest time communicating in a form that makes sense to anybody but me).

There’s a reason Fr. John’s article has a continuing audience; it is well-written, it expresses a point of view clearly, and it is a point of view which is popular among many American converts to Orthodox Christianity:

Some may negatively assume that such a proposal must necessarily lead to the development of an American Orthodox music, which will sound like Protestant music or the 70’s rock and roll Christian music of the baby boomer generation’s surfer churches. On the contrary, we are hinting at the development of authentic sacred music for the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America, a music founded on “that which has been delivered to us”, but which is also the result of our interaction as Orthodox Christians with the surrounding American culture. (emphasis mine)

Fully Orthodox and fully American! Orthodox as the Seven Ecumenical Councils and American as apple pie! Isn’t that what we all want?

The trouble that I have with the article, and what I offer as a critique, is that Fr. John unfortunately buys into what Alexander Lingas refers to as “the narrative of decline” with respect to Byzantine music as part of his argument. Specifically, this paragraph is problematic:

Is the Byzantine music that we sing today really Byzantine, i.e. from the Byzantine era of the 4th through the 15th Centuries? Are we not aware that the Church music of the See of Constantinople was heavily influenced by the demands of the Turks after the fall of the empire in 1453 AD? Are we aware that the authentic music of the Byzantine Church lost its diatonic character and accepted enharmonic and chromatic intervals during this period of the Turkish yoke? Are we aware that the music of today’s churches in the Byzantine tradition throughout the entire Mediterranean region of the world is the result of the codification of these oriental elements by Chrysanthus in the 19th Century and is scarcely 200 years old?

Checking his footnotes, his citations are predictable — Strunk (1977) and Tillyard (1923). It’s an appealing narrative for many folks; hey, you know that stuff in Byzantine music that makes you feel uncomfortable as an American because it sounds, well, Eastern? It’s not actually as Orthodox as the Hellenophiles and Arabicists want you to think! It’s a later development which occurred under the Turkish yoke! It’s a narrative which validates the supposed biases of the “Western ear” (whatever that means) and knocks the practices of various national churches down a peg or two all at the same time — it’s a very economical argument in that regard.

There’s something else it manages to accomplish, too, which is hinted at in the body of the text and made explicit in a footnote:

We should continue the work of transcribing Byzantine notation into modern western linear notation and adopt modern western scale intervals.* We need to simplify the melodies in connection with the texts and encourage congregational participation. We should encourage the harmonization of the melodies. I have heard it said that the great musical contribution of the East is its melodies and the great contribution of the West is its development of harmony. What better place than America to bring these two great traditions together to form something uniquely American in terms of Orthodox Music? This, of course, has already been done in Russia, and will undoubtedly be a powerful influence on what is done in America in this area of musical development.

* This will, given time, effectively conform all Byzantine melodies to a diatonic equal-tempered scale. According to Byzantine Musical theorists, Medieval Byzantine Music was wholly diatonic anyway. So this could be construed as a move back toward a more pure form of Byzantine chant rather than a perversion of it.

So, actually, the more we file the edges and corners off of Byzantine music, the more Byzantine we make it, in fact! Better yet — we also make it more American at the same time. Perfect.

Also present is the fallacy that somehow congregational singing and congregational participation are coterminous. This seems to be one of those assumptions that makes people feel good but for which I have never actually seen any evidence. Don’t take this as me meaning that I’m against congregational singing; I’m not, not at all. What I disagree with is the “everybody sings everything or they’re not participating” model that seems to be the core postulate of many modern liturgists; that makes as much sense to me as saying “everybody paints the icons or they’re not praying with them”.

Now might be a good time to point out that in the last week, thanks to the magic of Inter-Library Loan, I’ve read Towards the Great Council: Introductory Reports of the Inter-Orthodox Commission in Preparation for the Next Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, published in 1971, back when they thought the next Synod would be occurring around 1974 or 1975. I’ll discuss it in more depth later, but Section 2 of this document is called “Fuller participation by the laity in the worship and life of the Church.” It is all of two pages. This section seems relevant to the present discussion:

…the nature of lay participation in the life of the Church is clearly expressed in her dogmatic and canonical teaching; it is not a question causing special concern to the Orthodox Church and, for the time being at any rate, it does not constitute a burning problem for her. In all conscience the Orthodox church believes that there has never been, nor is there now, a spontaneous movement among the laity to acquire greater rights and duties in the Church, different from those which they have had since the Church’s foundation. For they have always participated actively in worship and administration, in the pastoral work and teaching ministry of the Church, according to the rights and duties clearly laid upon them by Holy Tradition and the Canons. Their main rights and duties, as lay people and members of the Church, are to live in the fullness of the gifts and divine grace within our Holy Church and to witness by word and way of life to Christ the Saviour and to His gospel. (p. 23)

Obviously, this being 1971, this need not be the last word on the subject, but let’s keep in mind that this was in the immediate wake of 1970 Roman Missal taking a pair of pinking shears to the Mass in the name of “active participation,” and the Commission which drafted this document appears to be intending to head off any such attempts in the Orthodox world.

I must disagree with Fr. John about Byzantine notation and intervals; on a practical level, I might suggest that we might have an easier time getting the Greeks on board with the mission in America if we would stop treating their music as something we just found on the bottom of our shoe that somehow we have to fix and rescue from itself.

On a technical level, I wholeheartedly disagree about harmonization of Byzantine melodies. They function modally, not tonally; you cannot harmonize them according to conventions of Western functional harmony without eliminating the distinctives of the eight-mode system and reducing it to effectively two modes. This already happens when the well-meaning beginning isocratima thinks that the Second and Fourth Modes are intended to be major in character and mistakenly drones away on ni because it sounds like a tonic. The attempts at harmonizing many of these melodies which I have seen have been well-intentioned but nonetheless unfortunate; part-writing errors abound, to some extent unavoidably because the melodies are simply not conceived in the same way as melodies which follow Western conventions. Unavoidable though they may be, they still look, and sound, like part-writing errors.

On a level of Orthodox spirituality — here’s one idea: how about we immerse ourselves in the received tradition before we start trying to “fix” it? Might not something emerge organically over time if we were to do that? That’s not to say that we can’t try things to see if they work, but my thinking is that we’d be best off doing so in continuity with the tradition, not at variance from. If we want to make Byzantine music conceptually more accessible to Western ears, the first step is recomposing melodies to fit the English texts according to Byzantine conventions, not just sanding off the corners of pre-existing melodies and shoehorning in the English. There are increasingly good models for doing so — we should follow them.

From the standpoint of scholarship — at the very least, I would encourage Fr. John to at least familiarize himself with, and subsequently engage, the scholarship which recasts the narrative into one of continuity rather than decline. A place to start might be Lingas’ essay “Medieval Byzantine chant and the sound of Orthodoxy” in the book Byzantine Orthodoxies, Louth and Casiday, eds.

This brings me to the PBS piece on Emily Lowe at Holy Cross in Linthicum, MD. I am not certain if I’ve met Ms. Lowe; I met several people from Holy Cross at the Antiochian Sacred Music Institute back in ’04, and she looks familiar, but I honestly can’t remember. She has a lovely voice; the church is beautiful, and they’ve got her singing one of the signature hymns of Sunday Matins. It’s also kind of fun seeing people like Kh. Frederica Mathewes-Green and Terry Mattingly in the choir.

The problem is when things like this are said (which I copy here from the transcript):

During the time of the Ottoman Empire, the Greek chants took on sort of a very Middle Eastern character, and that’s when you hear this sort of dissonant, odd sounding things:  (singing) Hallelujah, Hallelujah, Hallelujah, glory to thee oh God.”  It sounds very foreign to Western ears.

Again, there’s that narrative of decline and cultural captivity with respect to Byzantine music. Granted, there are a lot of people in the Antiochian Archdiocese who teach that, including Fr. John, so it’s not a huge surprise, but my guess is that if the PBS documentarians were to have interviewed somebody like John Michael Boyer, they would have had a different set of quotes.

Ms. Lowe describes herself in one of the comments on the video’s page as “a piano teacher who just loves to sing”. I’m going to guess we have a lot in common; we’re what you might call armchair Byzantine musicologists. We’ve read a lot, we’ve heard a lot of recordings, been to a PSALM event or two and/or the Sacred Music Institute at the Antiochian Village, and we do our best with what we have, which are, as a rule, the Kazan transcriptions. I know I haven’t yet had a chance to actually study with a chant teacher who genuinely knows what they are doing and has direct contact with the received tradition, and my hunch is that neither has Ms. Lowe. The practical reality for me is that there isn’t anybody within a 4-5 hour drive for me to learn from; the closest person about whom I know is protopsaltis at Holy Trinity in Nashville, TN.

All of that is to say, if PBS came knocking on my door, I’d tell them I’m the wrong guy, everything I know I know because I read it in a book or have imitated a recording, I’m not an expert, I’m not an authority, and that they need to go talk to somebody like Boyer or Leonidas Kotsiris in Nashville, who have studied with great teachers (who were themselves students of great teachers and who have been singing these services in this idiom since they were blastocytes), and are themselves teaching it and passing it on. I would tell them they need to talk to people, not who are trying synthesize water from hydrogen and oxygen, but who have actually drunk from the well, if not marinated themselves in it.

Don’t get me wrong — I’m absolutely not attacking Ms. Lowe here. I have bags and bags and bags of admiration for her. She’s clearly wonderful, and a huge asset to Holy Cross. She does what she does very well, loves to do it, and offers it humbly in the service of Christ. That should be the big takeaway from this video, and it should be a model which all of us who use our voices in the service of the Church follow. It would be an honor to sing a service with her, anytime, anywhere. The trouble is the editors of the video presenting the content as authoritative and normative when it isn’t.

Finally, for the most part, all I really have to say about RightWingProf’s posts is — right on, brother. I take issue with a lot of the four-part writing which is out there for English translations for many of the same reasons he does. I don’t think it has to be that way; I think passing 7ths and 2nds can work okay, but they can’t be used as a sentimental harmonic trick.

There are a few little points I wish to engage, however.

I tend to disagree that professional choirs are somehow undesirable. Yes, fine, the Rachmaninoff Vigil is going to be too much for a parish choir as a rule. However, if you’ve got a cathedral choir that can pull it off — defined, as far as I’m concerned, as being able to sing it well and prayerfully — I don’t see a problem using it liturgically. My overall discomfort is that we approach a mindset that says, “You’re too good of a musician to serve the Church with the fullness of your gifts.” I can’t imagine telling an architect or an iconographer that, but we seem really comfortable telling singers that. No, it’s not a concert, but there’s a dichotomy between worship and performance which I think approaches being a false dichotomy at some point. My belief has always been, with respect to that dichotomy, if you sacrifice one for the other, you will do neither well. I completely own that I say that as a former Anglican, however, and that this informs my point of view.

I also fundamentally disagree with the blanket assumption, constantly asserted by many, that Slavic music is “more accessible to American ears”. If sung well, in English, with a melody that actually fits the text in terms of stresses and meter, Byzantine music is plenty accessible to American ears. By contrast, Slavic music sung poorly with stresses and meter distributed in such a way as to do violence to the English text is going to be just as inaccessible to the American ear as people so frequently proclaim Byzantine music as being. This is not a slam against Slavic music or Orthodox music in the Slavic idiom; I’m a big fan of Fr. Sergei Glagolev (who was kind enough to inscribe my volume of his music at PSALM in 2006), and the Kurt Sander settings I’ve sung I’ve really liked. All I’m saying is that I think it is an error to say that somehow one national idiom of Orthodox music is fundamentally more accessible than another and to privilege that idiom based on that assertion. There may very well be reasons to privilege particular idioms in particular contexts, but I don’t think this one holds up at all, and I think recent recordings of Byzantine chant in English bear that out.

Along similar lines, and to repeat a point made earlier, not everything needs to be sung along with by the congregation. Yes, it’s church, not a concert; I might reply by saying it’s church, not a campfire singalong. Melisma serves a particular function in the Byzantine idiom — frankly, that of following the rubrics. ἀργὰ καὶ μελὠς, “slowly and melodically”, is sometimes what the rubrics call for. It is not the aberration many would make it, so I can’t agree that it should be absolutely avoided in the parish.

That said, a parish choir needs to fight its weight. Period. If a choir can’t sing it well and prayerfully, they shouldn’t sing it at all. So, from that standpoint, I agree that there is nothing wrong with “keeping it simple,” insofar as what we mean by that is that the music should be no more complicated than what the choir can sing well and prayerfully. In all likelihood, that’s probably going to mean keeping things a lot simpler than we might otherwise like for the time being — heck, we use the Antiochian Village camp music book as the normative setting at All Saints — but it doesn’t necessarily follow that choirs and congregations can’t ultimately grow into certain kinds of repertoire.

If I were helping to start a mission, what I would be very curious to try, if I had 3-4 other singers who were up for it and who could sing it well and prayerfully, plus an acoustic which would complement it at least somewhat, is using the Thyateira translation with the Boyer/Lingas Byzantine arrangements, as found on The Divine Liturgy in English, as the standard music, and setting it up from the get-go in an antiphonal formation. The idea would be to make a particular traditional practice normative from the get-go so that people are used to it from the start, rather than the mission making it up as they go along. I’ve seen what that can look like, and I can’t quite shake the idea that it is self-defeating and ultimately serves to paint missions into corners.

Perhaps it is good that I am not helping to start a mission.

On Bright Friday: Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

This is the time of year, the last week before dead week, when I typically find myself scratching my head, thinking, “Where the heck did the school year go?”

Heck — where did April go?

Tomorrow will be the first Saturday here at home when I haven’t had to set an alarm since February. Note to self: next year, when you’re asked if you’re up to 8am Saturday Liturgies all throughout Great Lent, say “no”.

Anyway… getting home after the trip to Seattle, I was ragged to say the least, but I was nonetheless returned to your regularly-scheduled Byzantine Holy Week, already in progress. To say it was bizarre I’m not sure really covers it; being in the midst of a death in the family (and recovering from bronchitis before we left), and having missed, more or less, Palm Sunday, plus all of the Bridegroom Matins services, as well as having broken the fast while traveling, during Western Easter no less, to just drop in with Unction on Wednesday and return to fasting for all of five days just felt weird. Also, since my experience of Orthodox Christianity has been very much in the context of my marriage, having my wife gone made it even weirder. By the time people were yelling “CHRIST IS RISEN!” late Saturday night, I just had to admit — “Sorry, not feeling it this year.”

Which makes it a good thing that the Resurrection of Christ does not particularly depend on my feelings, I suppose.

Agape Vespers Sunday morning found me missing a perfect fifth at the top of my voice and in possession of an extra major third at the bottom. Such was the case for much of my choir. Folks, I will write a separate blog post about this later, but let me beseech, implore, plead with, beg you — for the health, sanity, and vocal longevity of your choir and cantors, when you decide upon a mission space or build a church, however temporary you plan for it to be, acoustics and an intentional, non-negotiable place for your choir and cantors are not a “nice to have”. They are a “need to have”. Low drop ceilings with acoustic tiles and carpets cannot be considered a reasonable option, because then your choir and cantors, who likely won’t be trained singers in the first place and who won’t have any way of adjusting for how an acoustically dead space messes with your hearing or your singing — to say nothing of your priest, particularly during Holy Week — will have really no option in the long haul but to yell through services against the room or just not be heard — and frankly, you probably won’t be heard terribly well anyway. As well, to haphazardly jam the choir into a corner they were never meant to occupy, where they are walled in by, well, a wall, the congregation, the solea, and the plane of a deacon’s door, particularly on Pascha when you’ve got extra choristers as well as people’s baskets encroaching on what is already too little space — well, it just doesn’t work very well, from any standpoint. Do not tell yourself, “Well, the space is temporary, so we’ll just make do while we have to,” either — temporary is a guest with a habit of staying late.

But I’ll come back to that another time.

After Agape Vespers, I was prepared to go home, make my Paschal nachos, bottle beer, catch up on some homework, and then go pick up my wife at the Indianapolis airport at 10:30pm.

Did you hear that? That was God elbowing me in the ribs, saying, “Gotcha good, didn’t I?”

At 3:30pm, I got a phone call from Megan at the Seattle airport. The short version is that, thanks to weather, the Chicago-to-Indy leg of her flight had been cancelled, and because it was a FAA-imposed delay which caused the cancellation, there really wasn’t much United Airlines was willing to do beyond to say, “Have a nice night at O’Hare and we’ll get you on standby the next day… at some point.”

“All you have is carry-on luggage, right?” I asked.

“Yes.”

“OK. I’ll see you in Chicago.”

I quickly called friends to let them know that nachos would have to wait, and I left at 4:30pm (EST) to try to intercept the 8pm (CST) flight.

Thanks to an eight-mile backup on northbound highway I-65 (the left lane was closed for construction, although no actual construction was occurring that I could see), I finally got there about 9:30pm (CST), or 10:30EST — the time I was supposed to pick her up in Indianapolis in the first place.

We got home around 3:30am (EST), making it an impromptu eleven hour round trip. Thankfully, Megan was up to driving most of the way home so I could sleep, since I had to go to work the next morning.

It was a great start to the week.

I am, however, finally caught up with all of the Greek homework that I missed while I was sick and subsequently out of town, as well as ready, more or less, for the conference paper-style presentation of my research project for the history seminar I’ve been in this semester. It will be a work in progress, and I’ve already said I’ll need an incomplete for the full paper given all the surrounding circumstances, but I at least have something to show people, and I think it’s reasonably interesting. I think. In short, it has to do with how Coptic and Byzantine liturgical texts show us how each Church builds its communal identity relating to, and institutional memory of, the Council of Chalcedon with the rhetoric employed in the relevant hymnody, synaxarion readings, and even in fixed portions of the Liturgy such as the Commemoration of the Saints in the Coptic rite, and so on.

We’ll see how it plays in Peoria. I don’t think I can assume any liturgical knowledge whatsoever, so a good chunk of my time is having to be taken explaining various segments of the different services. Hopefully eyes won’t glaze over too much.

So, besides not having gotten enough sleep in two months and coming up on the end of my part-time status as a student, I can say that I appear to have a chant teacher while I’m in Greece, I have my renewed passport, and we have Megan booked to come out to Greece for the last 9 days or so that I am there.

I had received some suggestions about chant teachers, but held off acting on any of them until a particular individual got back to me. This person finally did, saying, “Well, here’s how you get in touch with Lycourgos Angelopoulos as well as Ioannis Arvanitis.” The catch with Πρωτοψάλτης Λυκούργος, alas, is that he speaks Greek and is “able to communicate in French”; I’m not sure I want to depend on languages which are works in progress for this kind of instruction, so I sent an introductory e-mail to Arvanitis in Greek (proofread by my friend Anna Pougas, so that I wasn’t inadvertently telling him “έχω τρία αρχίδια” or anything like that) and in English. He wrote back in English, saying yes, I’ll be here, here’s my number, call me when you get to Athens. We’ll see what can actually be done in seven weeks, but I’m looking forward to actually getting to learn even the most basic of basics from somebody who actually knows what they’re talking about and who has had the real thing in his ear and his blood for his whole life.

Anyway — life is slowly returning to manageable levels. At least until it’s time to leave my job and go to Greece for the summer.

Christ is risen! Indeed He is risen!

Joe McKamey, larger than death

O God who, by the Passion of Thy Christ, our Lord, hast loosened the bonds of death, that heritage of the first sin to which all men of later times did succeed: make us so conformed to Him that, as we must needs have borne the likeness of earthly nature, so we may by sanctification bear the likeness of heavenly grace. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen. Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

We got up at 4am on Thursday, 9 April to leave for the airport at 5am (God bless you, Laura Willms) to catch a 7am flight. We arrived in Seattle at 10:30am, picked up the rental car, dropped things off at Megan’s mom and stepdad’s house, had lunch, and then headed off to Poulsbo.

The last time I had seen Joe was back in August. He was suffering from a bit of jaundice, and he got tired a bit more easily than he otherwise would, but he was still largely the same large man who played drums with abandon, hated to have people touch his truck, and toasted our wedding as Vito Corleone. Megan’s stories and pictures from her trips out to the Northwest over the last charted his decline for me to some extent, but this was the first time I had actually seen him with my own eyes.

He lay in a hospital bed in his and Donna’s bedroom, and he really was just sleeping. Donna, Megan’s stepmother, said that the last time he had been lucid was Sunday. Every so often, he would appear to open his eyes for a half-second, or grunt like he was trying to respond to something you said, but such moments were fleeting. Physically, he was a shell, much shrunken and withered from what I remembered — a sixty-two year old man who could believably have passed for eighty-two or even ninety-two. Still, he was peaceful, it was clear he wasn’t in any pain, and if it makes any sense, it also seemed clear that he was in the room with us, he just was mostly no longer located in the body. He was tied to it, yes, maybe we could say even held back by it, but he was already mostly gone. The dimmer switch was already pretty much all the way down; it just hadn’t clicked off yet. The only reliable reaction he gave was when water was sponged over his lips; it’s hard to say if that was reflex or not.

We spent a couple of hours with him, as well as talking to Donna. It was clear that it wasn’t going to be long; in my heart of hearts I was going to be very surprised if he made it another day. Before we left, Megan told him, “Dad, I know you’re going to do whatever you damn well please anyway, but you have to hold on till tomorrow, because all of your kids are going to be here.”

Thus saith the Lord: In their affliction they will rise early to Me: Come, and let us return to the Lord, for He hath taken us, and He will heal us, He will strike, and He will cure us. He will revive us after two days: on the third day He will raise us up and we shall live in His sight. We shall know and we shall follow on, that we may know the Lord. Hosea 6:1-3, read on Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary From)

We headed back to Megan’s mom’s house, where we were planning on staying that night. Teague, Megan’s older brother, arrived. We settled down with a nice Trappist ale for what was intended to be an evening of familial reflection.

Then we had to take me to the emergency room.

The really short version is that I smacked my head but good on the very sharp corner of a kitchen cabinet while trying to get around a couple of people who had no reason to be concerned about the height of said kitchen cabinets. I managed to hit it at just the right angle and just the right speed, and within a couple of seconds I had a perfectly-formed Y-shaped gash on the very top of my head, and I was bleeding like a stuck pig. My experience with head injuries is that they’re gushers for a minute or so and then you’re done; well, this didn’t happen. I just kept bleeding, and within a couple of minutes I was also getting pretty foggy and confused. Everybody still had the Natasha Richardson tragedy in mind, so it was off to the emergency room we went. It was a reasonably short trip to the ER, two hours, and all they wound up doing was, literally, gluing me shut. This meant I had a glob of pharmaceutical superglue (“Dermabond“) in the middle of my hair for the next few days and had to shave my head to get it out, but that was okay.

We got back to Megan’s mom’s house, and setting down at 12:45am after what had been nearly 24 hours on the go (taking into account the three hour time difference between Seattle and Bloomington), we crawled into bed.

At about 1:50am, the phone rang. In the still, small hours of Western Good Friday, Joe was gone. Donna was up at one in the morning listening to him breathe as she had been for the last several nights, and eventually his breath took on an irregular rhythm for a few seconds; then, as quickly as his breathing had changed, it simply stopped.

He hadn’t waited for his kids to gather around him. Megan said later, “I think he wanted it to just be he and Donna.” I think she’s probably right.

O my God, I shall cry by day, and Thou wilt not hear: and by night, and it shall not be reputed as folly in me. Psalm 21:2, read on Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary From)

The next twelve hours or so were absolutely extraordinary. We all headed over immediately, and eventually all of the aunts and uncles (save a couple of who had to come in from out of town) and several of the cousins also were there. There were tears, there were full-body-wracking sobs, there was cursing, there were screams that were some of the most primal I have ever heard, there was constant cradling and kissing of Joe’s too-small head and hands, there were brave faces that withered over time, there were irreverent jokes. Megan and I sang “Eternal Memory” at Joe’s side.

And, inevitably, this being a McKamey family gathering, people started cooking, drinking coffee, and talking. This was a very, very, very good thing.

The hospice folks came to pick up Joe a bit after noon. We all realized that this truly would be the last time we would see even his shell on this side of the veil, and everybody desperately gave to Joe whatever they had left to give him. They tell the family to be someplace else while they take away the body; I think that’s probably pretty wise.

The rest of the final day that Joe McKamey had begun alive was pretty subdued. We ate, we drank Scotch (18 year old Glenlivet, which I bought because I thought 18 year old Macallan would be a bit excessive), we talked.

Eventually we slept.

Saturday morning Donna said through tears that it was harder. “Yesterday was just a continuation of the last day of his life,” she cried. “Today he’s just not here at all.” She was right; it was the first time we had all woken up to a new, permanent reality. Megan’s two year old niece Sacha asked, “Where’s gampa Joe?” “In heaven,” Donna told her gamely, but Sacha kept asking, not understanding.

Megan and I found an absolutely delightful and welcoming little OCA mission about five minutes from Joe and Donna’s house, St. Elizabeth’s Orthodox Mission. It’s a storefront right in a well-traveled area in the middle of town, right next door to something called The Storehouse Church; I wonder if their neighbors have any idea what to do with them. Anyway, besides wanting to attend services, Megan was going to make kollyva for the family Easter dinner the next day, and wanted to know if the priest would be willing to bless it.

Of course, the priest, Fr. Christopher Swanson, said, without so much as raising an eyebrow. Bring it tomorrow morning after Liturgy and we’ll do a memorial for him.

Sunday morning we went with Donna to 8am Easter Mass at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bremerton. The homily was precisely what was needed, with the priest starting off with the question, “Why do we visit the graves of those we love?” One thing that was a little puzzling, however — I was under the impression that Catholics said “Christ is risen!” “The Lord is risen indeed!” on Easter, and when I greeted a couple of people with “Christ is risen!” I got blank stares. Oh well. We were there for Donna, and she found in the Body and Blood the comfort she was seeking that morning.

After Mass, Megan put the finishing touches on the kollyva and we headed to St. Elizabeth’s for what at that point was the last third or so of the Palm Sunday Divine Liturgy. It was absolutely pouring outside, so there was no procession with the palms, but the people were nothing short of amazingly gracious when it was time to do the panakhida for Joe — the full choir sang, they wept with us, they embraced us as their own. Fr. Christopher was also kind enough to bless a prosphora loaf at the altar for Joe. Thank you, St. Elizabeth’s, for showing us what Christian community and family actually is.

Back at Donna’s, Easter dinner was served. A place for Joe was set at the table, with a photo of him on his plate. For our part, we served the kollyva, the little prosphora loaf, as well as a half-dozen Easter eggs which I had dyed with onion skins.

The rest of the evening consisted of me packing. Joe was being buried Monday, the next morning, but the actual funeral Mass would not be until the following Saturday. Our tickets had been booked to come back Monday evening; we decided that Megan would stay through the following Sunday and I would go home as planned after the burial. For several reasons, it wasn’t what we wanted to do, but for several additional reasons, it was really the only way we could split the baby — no matter what we did there was going to be heartbreaking sacrifice involved. That things had been scheduled the way they had was more than a little perplexing, but one thing which is crystal clear to me after witnessing this is that there is absolutely no way that the person making the decisions will be able to please or accommodate everybody. Donna and Megan assured me that being there for everything up to that point, as well as for the burial, was everything that truly mattered, and with St. Elizabeth’s just right around the corner, Megan wasn’t going to have to miss out on all of Holy Week. Donna’s aim, ultimately, was to have the burial be the “real funeral” for the family, and the funeral Mass be the public memorial, and I think that’s probably about as fair as it can get.

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός.

Sanctus Deus.

Ἅγιος Ἰσχυρός.

Sanctus Fortis.

Ἅγιος Ἀθάνατος, ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς.

Sanctus Immortalis, miserere nobis. Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

Monday morning, Donna was bustling around, saying, “You know the moment in The Lion in Winter where Peter O’Toole breaks through the ice in the wash basin, splashes the freezing water over his face, and says, ‘It’s going to be a jungle of a day’? Well, that’s today.”

Present at the burial were all of Joe’s kids, grandkids, brothers and sisters (even those from out of town), his mother, his wife, several nieces and nephews, and spouses of the same. Fr. Seamus Laverty of St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Tacoma, who had baptized Donna and reconciled Joe to the Catholic Church back in 2002, and who had served Joe Last Rites and his final Holy Communion a couple of weeks earlier, presided over the burial. Megan, as Joe had asked, read 1 Thess 4:13-18:

But I do not want you to be ignorant, brethren, concerning those who have fallen asleep, lest you sorrow as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus. For this we say to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive and remain until the coming of the Lord will by no means precede those who are asleep. For the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of an archangel, and with the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And thus we shall always be with the Lord. Therefore comfort one another with these words.

Fr. Seamus, both per the custom at St. Patrick’s and at Donna’s request, sang “An Irish Blessing” in a simple, clear voice, and it was as fitting and moving a goodbye as we could have wanted.

May the road rise to meet you,
May the wind be always at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
The rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
May God hold you in the palm of his hand.

Through tears, we all paid our last respects. Donna put shells and dirt from their property on the casket. Megan put flowers. Ian placed one of his CDs on the casket saying, “I know the music’s better where you are now, Dad, but this is for you.” Others just touched the casket, silently wishing him farewell.

And then he was lowered into the earth.

We adore Thy Cross, O Lord: and we praise and glorify Thy holy Resurrection: for behold by the wood of the Cross joy has come into the whole world.

May God have mercy on us, and bless us: may He cause the light of His countenance to shine upon us, and have mercy on us. Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

“It’s so hard to imagine him fitting into so small a box,” Megan said. “It doesn’t seem big enough, even for how he ended, let alone what he was like before he was sick.”

“No,” I said, knowing exactly what she meant. “I think Joe was larger than death.”

We were able to spend an hour or so at a family gathering afterwards, and it was good to catch up with some members of Megan’s extended family whom we don’t get to see very often. All too soon, however, it was time to get me to the airport. (I do apologize for not getting any further north on the east side of the water than the airport — circumstances just did not allow. I hope to get out there again late summer or thereabouts with Greece pictures.)

Joe McKamey passed away at 1:45am on Good Friday 2009. He reposed peacefully, painlessly and unmedicated, naturally, at home and in his own bedroom, in the presence of his wife. He was at peace with his God and those whom he loved. His children were all able to mourn with his body, and to see him to his rest.

We should all be so fortunate.

Let us pray:
Upon Thy people who with devout hearts have recalled the Passion and Death of Thy Son, we beseech Thee, O Lord, may plentiful blessing descend: may gentleness be used with us, and consolation given us, may our faith increase in holiness, our redemption for ever made firm. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray:
Almighty and merciful God, who hast restored us by the Passion and Death of Thy Christ: preserve within us the work of Thy mercy; that by our entering into this mystery we may ever live devoutly. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

Let us pray:
Be mindful of Thy mercies, O Lord, and hallow with eternal protection us Thy servants, for whom Christ Thy Son established through His Blood this mystery of the Pasch. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.
Good Friday, Mass of the Presanctified (Roman Rite, Extraordinary Form).

A postscript: This morning, in my prayers, for the first time I prayed for Joe among the departed instead of among the living as I have done for years, particularly in the last several months. For the very first time, I understood with my soul as well as my head the argument from Tradition about why we pray for the dead — it is because it is our fervent hope, and our strong belief, that they are not dead but alive in, and with, Christ. I have understood the hope before now — but it is only thanks to Joe that I understand the belief.

With the spirits of the righteous made perfect give rest to the soul of Thy servant, O Saviour; and preserve it in that life of blessedness which is with Thee, O Thou who lovest mankind.

In the place of Thy rest, O Lord, where all Thy Saints repose, give rest also to the soul of Thy servant; for Thou only lovest mankind.

Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.

Thou art our God who descended into Hell, and loosed the bonds of those who were there; Thyself give rest also to the soul of Thy servant.

Both now and ever, and to the ages of ages. Amen.

O Virgin, alone pure and immaculate, who without corruption didst bring forth God, intercede for the salvation of his soul. — from the Trisagion Prayers for the Departed, Byzantine Rite


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