Our small Parish of St. Elias in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, celebrated the Sunday of Orthodoxy yesterday and as the weather was warm for this time of year and the ground dry we we left our temple and made procession outside holding our icons, led by our cross, the smell of incense in the air and the ancient song “Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal…” on our lips.
In months of firsts since by the grace of God or the madness of the Church or some combination I was made Priest this was the first procession. Of course I have been in others, you can’t be Orthodox without processing around something sometime, but this was the first as Priest and there was a holiness to it that escaped words as we circled the little church building in the rough part of LaCrosse.
The grass was gray as winter still held a grip and the wind swirled down the valley and over the river but there was a sense of being removed from all that and drawn in to something ancient and beyond us. All over the world in small wooden churches like ours or grand cathedrals people were holding icons, led by the cross, smelling the incense, and singing the timeless songs. And as we walked we told the world that by the grace of God we still believe,
still remember, still hope, and still call the world to heaven.
There is a formal Sunday of Orthodoxy with its liturgies and rituals reminding us of the official pronouncements of a long ago Council restoring the veneration of icons to the faithful but in truth the triumph of Orthodoxy is also written in the hearts of all those who through the ages have kept the faith alive often under grievous circumstances.
Our small procession lasted just a few minutes but in those passing moments all of what had gone before, all of what we faced in these times, and all of what we long for in the Kingdom of God became present. So, too, did the memory of all those who have gone before us, the tall shoulders on which we stand.
And as they pray for us we walk on through Lent and towards resurrection sustained by what has been given to us, the faith that established the universe.
These seem to be times given to fear. Fear simmers underneath our consciousness and it has become the great unseen hand behind the events of the day.
Fear has made us vulnerable because it tears us apart inside, sunders the bonds that hold person to person, and makes us vulnerable to manipulation by those who desire power and need our fear
so that we will give them what they desire. Fear calls us to exist at a mere emotional level, it takes away our capacity for rationality, and replaces thought with reaction. And as we give power to fear it grows as the solace we expected from it diminishes and we find ourselves, in the end, both captives and more fearul than ever.
Fear has much to do with where we place our hope. The Scriptures warn us not place our trust in princes and the sons of men (Psalm 146) because all of us are flawed and transitory and every thing we create is subject, despite our intentions, to the same mortality that touches all our life.
Hope, which is a cure for fear, needs something beyond itself to attach to or it is no better than sentiment. In this the human heart since time has been recorded has reached out the the Infinite, to that which we inherently understand as exisiting and yet beyond us, to God. Our instincts to limit our trust in ourselves, who we are, what we know, and what we can create, are accurate and have honed by millenia of painful experience. But we sometimes forget, and these days seem to be a time of particular amnesia.
Until this changes we will have only ourselves and our fears to make sense of it all.
Its a little after 10 in the evening and Great Compline is done. The challenge of Lent is upon us and the joyous struggle has begun.
The services are familiar and it takes just a little time to return to the ancient rythms. Life outside of the church door stops for a while and we are timeless in a holy place. The prayer of St. Ephraim reminds us again of why we are here, to recognize our need of grace and tend to the tasks of our salvation.
We journey through Lent alone but together. Alone in that we are called to focus on ourselves and not on others. Our work is our own and what we believe the sins of others may be are not our business. Yet we are together as well because we share a common struggle, a common hope, and a common joy.
In the weeks to come there will be more services with names like Akathist and Pre-Sanctified. They all mean something and in Holy Week they merge so deeply that it actually feels like Liturgies interrupted by life rather than the other way around. The season demands our attention and seems incomplete if done in fractions.
The energy of Lent has begun, may its momentum carry us to the holiest night in the world.
Overheard a comment yesterday about how old fashioned it was to give up something for Lent.
Perhaps it is but I don’t understand it. The older I get the more I see why I have to have Lent and not just the modern “add a few nice deeds to your life for a month” kind, but rather the old fashioned Lent of serious examination and struggle.
The truth is there are serious adjustments I need to make. Even a cursory review produces too long a list for a few short weeks and the truth it tells about who I am and where I need to go slices through my mirages. Dust and debris settle into my life without my notice and that does not take into account those things I willingly embrace each time I chose the temporal over the eternal.
Its a strange situation when the things I crave are so poisonous to me, so ready to tear Heaven away from me, and so much like hell even now. Adding sad to strange is that the cure lies in the acts of examination, struggle, repentance and renewal that are the heart of Lent as it developed over time and yet it is doing those very things that has become “old fashioned”. Though the cure is close at hand I choose the sickness.
It is hard to be exposed, to stand naked, to have the core of your being opened and the rot allowed to seep out. I wish there was some other way but it is not to be. Deep wounds require deep cures, it is the way of things. Yet one thing keeps me going.
When I see myself as I am I also see that the tasks of Lent, the purging of the old and moving towards the holy, is everywhere permeated with God’s love and desire for me to draw closer to Him. When I put a foot in front of the other towards God I become more alive, more whole, more human, more of everything that I was intended to be. If sin is a sweetness that covers a bitter poison then repentance is a bitterness that soon melts away to a transcending sweetness. That is where the joy lies, a joy that in some small measure can only be experienced to the extent that one truly engages Lent as it was meant to be and endures its hardships in hope.
Surely there is a bit of vanity in having a blog and thinking that somehow what you have to say may matter to someone somewhere.
But these are crazy times, times I could not have imagined growing up in the middle of Wisconsin. We all wanted to be Packers then and life had it complications but they seem small, even docile compared to the 24 hours seven days a week everything in this minute is the most important issue in the world noise that marks this world.
So here I am a traveling Priest, an Orthodox Christian, serving three parishes in one way or another in three states. And as the world seems to want things to go lower and lower I try my best to stay afloat buoyed by higher things.
Somehow I believe. I can’t tell you why, but I do. Life has meaning in these days in a way it may not have had all things been well and the world not so desperate. Bearing the light, even in a dim and sinful way, somehow matters more in darker times. There’s nothing there that really has anything to do with me, but the message somehow matters more now than ever.
So I take up writing and hope that it makes a difference. If this dies along the way I will have the comfort of knowing that I tried. If it lives those who read it will perhaps be changed and the world they live in as well and that will make all the difference.
Vanity? Perhaps. A calling? We’ll see.