This past Sunday was “Sunday of Orthodoxy,” as the first Sunday in Lent is always named. It celebrates the “Triumph of Orthodoxy” over iconoclasm, and the restoration of icons to their proper place in liturgical and devotional use. As St. John of Damascus explained, we honor icons, just as we show honor to the emperor, or to an aged parent. We don’t worship them. Worship is for God alone. We don’t worship our beloved favorite bible, but we handle it respectfully, and even with affection. The same with icons; they are portraits of people we love. As with a photo of a beloved grandmother, we handle icons with affection and respect.
Last night was the beginning of Lent for Eastern Orthodox Christians. We are far behind the West this year. The reason is that the date of Pascha / Easter depends on the date of the vernal equinox (first day of Spring) and also the phases of the moon, and some years we have the same Easter, and some years (like this year) we are as much as 5 weeks off. On the Sunday evening that Lent begins, we have a vespers service. Afterward we have the Rite of Forgiveness. The members of the congregation line up, face to face, and ask for each other’s forgiveness, and give it. I found a few photos from around the web to show what this might look like.
During Lent we make more prostrations. That’s a process that begins by making the sign of the Cross, then bowing down, resting your knees on the floor and then touching your forehead to the floor. I’ve collected, below, some photos of people making prostrations from around the internet.
This is the main thing: “Our religion is founded on spiritual experience, seen and heard as surely as any physical fact in this world. Not theory, not philosophy, not human emotions, but experience.” —St. Nikolai Velimirovic I think that, for much of my life writing about eastern / Orthodox Christianity and ancient Christian spiritual disciplines, I have been going about it wrong, based on some inaccurate assumptions I had.
Over the years we have seen some touching and marvelous things occur at Holy Cross Church. Here are a few of our stories. 1. We’ve had a couple of “angel sightings” by very young children. (Or rather, a couple that children told us about; who knows how many times they see angels, and don’t tell us about it.) On a Sunday in 1999, a family from Texas came to Holy Cross for the Divine Liturgy, accompanied by their 3-year-old girl. Later that day they were at dinner in Deacon Mark & Shmassey (“deacon’s wife”) Ina O’Dell’s home. The little girl was seated between her mother and Ina, and Fr. Gregory was seated across the table from them. Ina says: “I remember her sitting there between me and her mom saying, ‘Mom! Look, he’s the one!’, while pointing to Fr. Gregory. Her mother asked what she meant, and she said ‘He’s the one that was singing with the angels!’ Beth looked at me with raised eyebrows. One of us asked the child whether she had seen angels in church, and she replied ‘Yes,’ but she was clearly more excited to be seeing Father again: ‘and he’s the one that was singing with them!’”
[January 24, 2016] Today is the feast day of St. Xenia of St Petersburg (1732-1803), a beloved saint of relatively recent times. St. Xenia’s husband died after a night of drinking, leaving her a childless widow at 26. Now freed from all earthly attachments, she took on the very challenging spiritual discipline of being a Fool for Christ. She gave away her home and all her possessions, and became a homeless wanderer. Grieving for her husband, who had died without having made his confession, she word only his red-and-green military uniform (when it wore out, she clothed herself in rags of those colors).
This new Russian novel tells the story of a fictitious 15th century saint, a wonderworker and healer. Though secular readers may be inclined to consider his feats “magical realism,” everything in it could be found in the life of one Orthodox saint or another: soul-reading, bilocation, levitation, multiplication of bread, companionship of wild animals, and so on. The book has been greatly admired in literary circles in Russia, and won some significant awards; but its popularity may also stem from the hunger that made Everyday Saints (by Archimandrite Tikhon Shevkunov, 2012), with its stories of modern-day miracles, a bestseller in Russia. There is a hunger for recovering the nation’s historic Christian roots, especially in the lives of its saints, both ancient and contemporary.
July 17 is the feast of the valiant St. Marina, who was martyred in the 3rd century. Over the years she has kept intersecting with my life—those odd synchronicities that make you wonder if there’s something going on that you don’t know what to do with. —In 1981 my husband and I (and kids) moved to Woodbridge, VA, where he had been called as the rector of St. Margaret’s Episcopal Church. Funny thing about that name. The woman who donated the money to found the church, half a century ago, asked that it be named for the patron saint of her school, St. Margaret. But by mistake the committee dedicated it to St. Margaret of Antioch, a.k.a. St Marina, and not St. Margaret of Scotland, whom the school had been named for.
Here’s something I use, to keep the certainty of death in mind. Feel the bones in your wrist. Those are your bones, part of your skeleton. If an archaeologist found your remains a thousand years from now, that’s what they would find. Not some other theoretical bones, but your own bones, the ones inside your wrist right now.
The Philokalia is a 5-volume (4 in English, so far) compilation of writings from the 4th to the 14th century on “Prayer of the Heart,” the process of uniting the personality and bringing it into communion with God. It’s a difficult work to approach, and several people have come up with suggestions on how to get started—what works to read in what order. Here’s a list I made, by compiling that advice.