I Will Go Into the Altar of God

Most of my early Church memories center around Sunday School (I think that we did not “stay for preaching” very often). The small Baptist church that we attended was about a mile from our house and was conveniently connected by a railroad track, generally inactive on Sundays. My older brother and I often walked along the track on Sunday mornings when the weather was pleasant. The earliest Bible verses I can recall were learned in those classrooms. One of those was Psalm 122:1: “I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord.’” No doubt, our teachers wanted us to remember it and return the next Sunday. That is how my young mind understood the verse.

Of course, the Scriptures have layers and layers of depth. I could only think of the small, white church down the tracks and the older ladies who taught our classes. I had no stories, as yet, of the House of the Lord in Jerusalem, nor the place of a pilgrimage for Jews to go there (perhaps only annually). It would be many years, indeed, before I learned about the House of the Lord in the soul, and the Secret Place deep within it.

My brother and I had a companion on those tracks, one who would become very important later in my life. I had a small Bible, covered in white leatherette, that was given to me by my mother’s Sunday School class when I was born (as was done for other children as well). It was King James, with onion skin paper and gilded edges. It was mine. My brother tells me that we fell into an argument one day as he taunted me for carrying my Bible. “You can’t read yet. Why do you carry it?” (I had to be no older than five at the time). He says that I replied, “It doesn’t matter. It’s the Word of God!”

Our companion was in the very front of that Bible. Its frontispiece was the Virgin and Child, painted by Raphael (the “Sistine Madonna”). It was the only bit of color in the entire book. I would learn much later in life that a print of that Madonna hung over Dostoevsky’s writing desk and was his favorite. I can remember no conversations about her, or her presence in my Bible. No mention was made in Sunday School about Mary. She was not part of my family’s religious consciousness. But she was there.

I think to myself now that she was there like the little Bible was there. I did not understand anything of the mystery that dwells within her, her intercessions for the faithful, and such. I did not understand the words in the Bible itself. But the Bible was the “Word of God,” and she, the “Bearer of the Eternal Word – the Theotokos.” The presence was sacramental and iconic rather than rational.

I have long thought that devotion to the Theotokos was sown in my child-heart by that Madonna. I did not discover that devotion until I was in college, as a part of High Anglicanism and the rosary. When I did discover that devotion I remembered the picture. That little Bible was extremely worn by the time of my college years. It was my companion during the Jesus Movement, acquiring a hand-made leather cover.

She comes to mind for me at this time of year. The feast of her Presentation in the Temple is tomorrow. As a child, too young to read, she is brought to the House of the Lord. There she took up a ministry among the young virgins. This is described in the Protoevangelium of James, and, not surprisingly, is treated with skepticism by modern scholars. I choose to accept the story and the mystery that surrounds it.

The first great mystery in this matter is well-noted in the hymns of the feast. Mary is the “Ark of the Covenant,” she whose womb will contain God-in-the-flesh. Her entrance into the Temple is the return of the Ark to the House of the Lord. As is true of so much else, there are layers and layers of meaning in that event. The feast invites us into them.

Today, my thoughts are about the “inner Temple,” the “Secret Place of the Most High,” that lies within the deep heart. Today, she will enter that place, and as a little child will dance in the presence of the Lord. Today, she will take me by the hand and tell me that she has longed for this Day when I would join her there and dance in God’s presence, happy that she is there, and that her womb will make Him present for all, the salvation of the world.

I was glad when they said unto me, ‘Let us go into the House of the Lord.’

Introibo ad altare Dei.   

29 comments:

  1. Fr. Freeman,
    As so often occurs when I read one of your articles, my heart soars. I had never thought of the blessed Virgin Mary also there in the deep inner recesses of my heart as I pray. Yet it makes perfect sense. She who brings forth Christ into the world, through her womb, is there also to birth Him into my heart. And there together, even now, we join in the eternal dance in Christ’s presence. Glory to God!

  2. Katherine,
    I do not currently make use of the rosary in my prayers. However, the prayers of the rosary are quite traditional and salutary. In Orthodox practice, the simple phrase, “Most Holy Theotokos, save us!” is often combined with the Jesus Prayer in the use of the prayer rope. Both the rosary and the prayer rope stem from a common source – both having developed somewhat separately because of the schism.

    I am aware, however, that the rosary has some use among the Orthodox in the lands that border on the old Catholic empires. There was (and still is) a bit of cross-fertilization among the faithful in those places. In our present period, some like to magnify ever possible distinction between the Orthodox and the Catholics, stigmatizing everything. This is not a historically faithful practice and is more similar to the kind of tribal thinking that increasingly permeates everything on the internet.

    I have, on occasion as a priest, given a blessing to pray the rosary when the reasons make sense.

  3. I recently started to pray the rosary more or less in line with the guidance of St Seraphim Sarovsky at the suggestion of my priest. I was astounded by its richness as true “soul food”: I realized that I had badly misunderstood what it was all about. Outside the western rite parishes, I’ve been surprised to find that many Orthodox of the Byzantine rite use it, including a number of priests I have spoken with.

  4. Dear Father,

    I am very leery of the idea of using the RC rosary as an Orthodox. The Latins fell away because of heresy and this was finalized in 1054 so why would I want to adopt a practice that only developed after the Great Schism? Ecumenistic thought would shy away from admitting that the west after the schism lost the catholicity of the True, Orthodox faith and the sacramental Grace, but this is exactly what happens with schisms. The Holy Fathers did not teach us that there remains catholicity after Schism. There was a border region of the “Unia” where some Orthodox might have been praying the rosary, but this is not really what I look to.

  5. I think we can’t over stress the importance of veneration and prayers to the Theotokos. Such prayer and her aid seem to overcome the effects of this culture on our soul.

  6. Andrew,
    I understand your caution. However, the rosary appears, in the opinion of many, to have originated in the Eastern Church and only later fell out of use, though continued in the West. I would not use the “Unia” as an example, either. I simply report something that is known among the Orthodox. First of all, it is possible to examine quite carefully the theology of any prayer. The prayer to the Mother of God used with the rosary is quite similar to the “Axion Esti.” The addition of, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and in the hour of our death,” is obviously quite Orthodox in its content.

    I am not here promoting its use – but answered a reasonable question with a reasonable, Orthodox answer.

  7. Andrew, when I was young the Rosary was recited on a Sunday morning radio program. My mother introduced me to it as part of my broad religious education (we did not attend church anywhere). I found it rather strange because of the flat, monotone manner in which it was recited. Yet it somehow impacted my heart and the prayer “Holy Mary Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death” was implanted there although I did not listen to many of the programs.

    When I first encountered an icon of Mary many years later, the prayer leapt to my lips and peace followed.

    Historically, the Great Schism, like most historical events, was not a big bang. There was a moment from which we have not recovered, but it took a long time for it to trickle down and really have an impact on the everyday piety of ordinary people. Even now, such connection is not entirely lost, by the Grace of God.

    There is always more to the story than anyone knows and I find the intellect alone a very harsh master.

    The entire Rosary with its meditations could be problematic as they are much more RC Theologically dense.

    May the mercy of God cover us all.

  8. Dee, I agree, there seems to be a restructuring of the heart that is unique to devotion to the Theotokos.

  9. Of all the things that comprise an Orthodox phronema, the one that seems quite essential (beyond the obvious) is devotion to the Mother of God. I remember a woman from a Pentecostal background here in Tennessee who told me that she just couldn’t understand devotion to Mary. So, she went to the old priest at the Greek Church she attended and told him this. He gave her no books to read nor did he give her theological instruction. He told her to go into the Church and sit in front of the icon of the Theotokos for an hour. She told me, “That’s what I did. At the end of the hour I understood and have loved her ever since.”

  10. As a now 4-year-old convert to the Ancient Faith, I understand the zeal we newbies bring to our “illumination.” We tend to dig a chasm between our old religious practice (if indeed we had one) and our dive into the deeper spiritual waters, as it were. I was fortunate to have a priest and spiritual father who gently corrected me on this attitude. My love for Christ was born in the Protestant Evangelical/Pentecostal microcosm of my father, a pastor, and my equally devout mother. That, my priest told me, was part of the path God had put me upon, and a catalyst toward my continued seeking.
    I think we newbies tend to look for the same black-and-white assurances we thought we had before, perhaps more desperate to find that because of the sense (however in error) that we were previously deceived and betrayed and “wpn’t get fooled again.”
    And here’s an irony . . . the same sola scriptura, sola gratia mindset slips back in with some who begin to put themselves forth as authorities and teachers, quoting the Fathers out of context, and without the understanding, those same Fathers painfully acquired through lifetimes of prayer, suffering and humility, and often matyrdom.
    How many honest inquirers have been driven away by such Pharisees of social media, who seem to choose pride (?) over love, faux dogmatic declarations and anathemas of heresies/ecumenism etc., over the loving wisdom just ultimately answering, “Come and see.”
    I certainly haven’t arrived at that point, but I want to remain aware that I need to strive for that.
    God bless you, Father, for your example.

  11. Robert,
    When I was received in Orthodoxy (1998), we were having a dust-up in this corner of my diocese (Diocese of the South, OCA) with a monastery that went into schism and was received by ROCOR which was out of communion with almost everyone at that time. There were strange currents, and extreme ones, though the internet was not really a factor. I was immediately put in charge of a new mission as the “lay pastor” while I was preparing for me re-ordination – which would not come for another 13 months. In the meantime, I often got “lobbied” in the mission by converts, by Orthodox of other stripes, etc., about what we should be doing, what I should be doing, pretty much everything. It was not pleasant, frankly. I recall telling my parish council, “I will take our mission down the middle of the OCA in obedience to our bishop. I don’t care what you read in a book, or what your elder told you, or what you did back in the old country, etc. I caught some flak. Occasionally, I was even accused of “still being an Anglican.” As time would bear out, it had been a position of sanity. When in doubt, ask the bishop, always. Vladyka Dmitri, of blessed memory, was a good pastor and sure and certain guide to Orthodoxy.

    I remember even having some inner torment in the year before my reception into the Church, when the waters were getting all stirred up surrounding the monastic schism. My final thought was this: “I don’t want to be ‘more Orthodox’ than Alexander Schmemann or my bishop.”

    I believe in taking care – if I didn’t – I wouldn’t have spent the thousands of hours that it takes to write and maintain this blog and its conversation – not to mention my life as a parish priest. But it’s not just the information for which we need to take care – it’s (most important of all) the heart that receives the information. And that is far more difficult. My earliest instinct regarding my bishop and the “middle of the road” was actually quite sound, spiritually, even more than I realized at the time.

    Coming out of the war-zone of the Episcopal Church, it would have been easy to have carried on in a war-mode. But that is not a proper state of the heart – at least with regard to so much. I needed to relax and just be Orthodox. One way that I did that was by not writing for 8 years when I converted, and then, only beginning with my Bishop’s blessing.

    On the whole, with the exception of a small handfull of issues (PSA, interpretation of Scripture, etc.) the blog has steered clear of controversy. Partly because I hate it and I’m so ill-suited to controversy. It leads me into troubled waters and too much sin. It’s why I have a rule about not writing on Church politics, or criticizing clergy, etc.

    The life within the Church is actually quite “wide” (even though the way is narrow). It is finding that “wide sweet spot” that is a great joy. Most of it is found by living as simply as possible and staying in the deepest waters possible. Those who constantly patrol the shores seem to hit the rocks more often than others.

    Fortunately, I had lots of solid, good guidance from other priests and great blessings in the hierarchs I’ve served.

  12. If you want an excellent (and very helpful) discussion of the Protoevangelium of St James— it’s not at all the wild fantasy that it might seem at first sight, but we need to understand the conventions of the type of literature that it is— there is none better than Margaret Barker’s *Christmas, The Original Story*. And since it’s that time of year, it’s a good recommendation anyway— https://www.amazon.com/Christmas-Original-Story-Margaret-Barker/dp/0281060509

  13. I had encountered icons and devotion to Mary before coming to the Church. I suspect that she had a lot to do with getting me in the door especially since my first parish was St. Mary’s. Nevertheless when I first entered the sanctuary toward the end of Orthros I saw her icon spread across the whole eastern wall at the back of the altar– her arms out stretched in welcome with Jesus on her lap. BAM! It took my breath away and I had to compose myself before I could continue to the pews.
    She was so welcoming. Yet always directing me to her son at the same time.

    We tend to make it too complicated I think–taking on more than we are actually given. I still go to her and her open arms but not enough.

  14. Introibo ad altare Dei
    Those words are written on my husband’s gravestone. Your reflection is wonderful!

    Prayers for Serbia, they have lost both a holy Metropolitan and Patriarch in the space of three weeks. The wolves are at the door. But this feast gives us joy!

  15. Joy is the answer and Mary, even in her tears always seems to bring joy. More than ever now I can say: Glory to God for all things.

  16. Tears to my eyes
    Thank you

    (I was unaware the the Feast of the Presentation was at this time of year in the Orthodox church. In the Western tradition it is observed on February 2nd. Do you know why the difference?)

    Blessings

  17. “living as simply as possible and staying in the deepest waters possible. Those who constantly patrol the shores seem to hit the rocks more often than others.”

    Yes!

  18. “My final thought was this: “I don’t want to be ‘more Orthodox’ than Alexander Schmemann or my bishop.”
    Amen, Amen, Amen!!

    The PSA stuff just drives me nuts. Thank you Father for your help and perseverance.

  19. Eric, the West also observes the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary on November 21. February 2nd in both the East and West is the Presentation of the Lord in the temple. (In the west it has sometimes been called the feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, but it’s focus has always been on the presentation of the Lord and the meeting with Simeon and Anna.

  20. We celebrated the feast with a Hierarchical Divine Liturgy that included an ordination to the priesthood (many years to the new Father Nicholas) and the first homily in almost two years from His Grace Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita. The homily was on the theme Mary as the new Temple a clear description of the Jewish Temple and what Mary’s entrance into the Jewish Temple means for our lives and our interaction with the world and God Himself.

    My wife and I hung on every word and both of us were shedding tears of joy by the end.

    God is good.

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