It took a while to decide where I was going. I had two choices for the Pascha Liturgy and up until the very last minute I debated which church I would attend. It was nearly midnight and both churches were an equal distance from my house.
Riley had agreed to come with me, she might have even been a little bit looking forward to it but then around 10pm she succumbed to sleep. It’d be a long day, a long couple of days. I could understand how I’d lose out to the soft warm bed.
So I climbed into the car and reasoned it, waited to feel out what the leading was at that moment. All day I’d planned to attend St J, the smaller community, a place where I had a friend finally. If Riley was going with me then I’d go to St. J, I thought. And now, it was time and I was alone, again and I felt that struggle in me, the social anxiety rising up.
This first Pascha Liturgy I still attend as a visitor, not as a family member. In the end I decided upon Holy Trinity because Pascha felt like a famiy affair and while I would gladly accept an invitation to dinner with a family I love and admire, this year..this first year, before I’m chrismated…I thought perhaps some distance might act as cushioning to my social anxiety and near constant struggle.
I arrived there just before midnight…the Vigil still going, the parking lot completely overflowing. I panicked a little. I told myself that if there was nowhere to park I’d leave. But I did find a spot…I walked slowly, absolutely underdressed for the occasion, to the doors of the church. The place was overflowing as well, 20 or so people standing pressed together in the Narthex and the open doors allowed some of us to peer in past them. All was dark inside the church. I wanted to be in there. I had an impulse to press in, push my way through but I waited. Something told me to wait.
And I was on the outside…and it struck me at that moment how very much I was on the outside, looking in. Story of my life, trying to find my own way and always on the outside looking into somewhere I want to be, unsure of how to get there, afraid to ask.
I thought that maybe I might leave. The storm was threatening, thunder and lightning acting as punctuation to my own thoughts as I stood there in the warm night air. Something told me to wait. Candles were passed around but I was alone, I didn’t make eye contact with anyone, I didn’t take a candle. I did not even try not to look like a visitor.
And the music began inside the church, a soft singing by the priest and the choir. The procession begins and suddenly candles’ flames are springing up. I realize then that the procession is coming toward me, coming to the outside and then when all from the packed church have arrive I am no longer outside but surrounded by this body of faith. I stand without a candle during the reading of the Gospel and the words of the angel hit me hard, “He is Risen, He is not here.” The singing begins, first in Greek then in English, “Christ has Risen from the dead, by death trampling upon Death, and has bestowed life upon those in the tombs” the candles made into the sign of the cross I am surrounded by light and sound.
As we all filed back into the church, now well lit, beautiful I briefly considered ducking out again. It would be easy and I would be asleep sooner rather than later. I already knew I’d not stay for the gathering after the Liturgy.
But I found a seat in the bright light, the scent of the flowers was overwhelming as it mixed with the incense. I waited, knowing that standing and a litany of “kyrie eleison” would come next. I took time to greet my favorite icons, half hoping there’d be no room at the inn and I’d be forced to go.
And it was then I realized with great sadness how lonely I felt and how unworthy I felt.
The idea that I would stay up into this late hour and come alone to the Feast of Feasts was notable. I wanted to be a part of it and yet I chose to be alone, I chose to be an outsider and I was lonely in my choice. It was the safe choice, to be sure, but it’s wasn’t the lifegiving one. It wasn’t the choice that would lead me into a deeper communion, into real relationship and commitment.
I thought when I began this journey that somehow merely choosing Orthodoxy would eliminate some of the tension and fear I feel around the idea of “church.” I thought it was a straight shot, an easy pick. I become Orthodox, I attend the church closest. I’ll figure it out. Now I realize that this calling into ancient tradition isn’t going to overrule the command to be in loving relationship with other humans. I’m going to have to make steps and be vulnerable. I’m going to have to trust and be willing to be injured…and I wonder if that is what it means to carry one’s own cross, to die to self, to be the body of Christ…one to another.