you’re doing it wrong…

One of the first weeks after we began to attend our church here in Chicago I had a conversation with a woman after church during coffee hour. She introduced herself to me, she was very friendly, very sweet. She sought me out as I tried to hide in the corner. I had my children with me that week for the first time. They were busy sugaring up on donuts and apple juice, as if they needed one more energy boost. All I could think about was the door. I eyed it and then clock on my phone. I began to think up our exit strategy when she crossed the room to speak with me.  She asked my name and those of my children.  She was older than myself and she knew everyone there. It was easy to see that she was an active member in this church. Something about that scared the crap out of me.

Things were going well until I made a comment about my kids lying on the floor during Liturgy that morning. “I’m working on it…” I said.  She responded, “Well, just don’t let Father J see them!” and then she laughed.  I was taken aback and suddenly all my insecurities sunk into my stomach and began to climb up my throat. I laughed uncomfortably and made an excuse as to why we had to leave.

I’m doing it wrong,” I thought.

I fear I will always be failing. It’s not the failing that bothers me really, it’s being noticed while failing, being affirmed that I am in fact, failing. The supposition here is that I already know my faults, I do not need them pointed out to me. On one level there’s truth to it. I do know my faults. On another level though I have to admit that this is where my real struggle plays out. I don’t want to be called to accountability because I can do it myself. I can fix myself. I can do it better. You don’t have to tell me I’m doing it wrong. Please don’t tell me I’m doing it wrong.

My adult life in the church brought me to the belief, though, that the nature of community, the true and real nature of community is being able to hear that I’m doing it wrong. I had developed this idea that humility meant I needed to surround myself with people who would have permission to point out my flaws and part of that might be accurate. Where it goes horribly awry however is when I walk out of a conversation feeling like crap because of it. Shame is not a hangover I get from hearing the truth. It’s left over, it’s what I choose to keep out of a garbage pile; rotten food and aging junk mail. I have no need of it and yet somehow I think that is the lesson, somehow I have come to believe mistakenly that humility means feeling like crap about my efforts.

The woman at church never really had a chance in that conversation. I walked into it and perhaps into Orthodoxy altogether, with a shame fueled chip on my shoulder, ready to be chastened, ready to be rejected, expectant that the church, practice, people, priests, histories, patriarchs or communities already had an arsenal of reasons to bar me from entering. I realize now how wrong I’ve been, how this is not particularly Orthodox. It’s taken me time to see this, to understand this is not part of the Orthodox vernacular but rather an old piece, something I brought in the door with me.

This week I had another conversation with this sweet woman. She’s become, over the last 7 months far more familiar to me. She’s always ready with a “hello” and I see her now in a much different light, because time does that, time stretches us out that way. This week I told her that I had a sudden realization that for the first time none of my kids had complained about attending Liturgy before we arrived. I realized and I was genuinely astonished, that none of them had complained during Liturgy about being tired or hungry or bored, even though I am sure they were all of those things at one moment or another. I confessed I was afraid to even hope we’d turned a corner. She smiled and patted me on the back, “They’re great, don’t worry. They’re just kids and it all takes time.”

Time does that, it stretches us out that way, it offers us grace and mercy. It offers us a chance to see how the light changes, how our attitudes shift, how we understand each other. Time gives us the chance to throw away the old, rotting things we think we need, the shame we bring into conversations and coffee hours. Time does that.

One comment:

  1. My previous Greek priest (with 6 kids) said that kids love Orthodox worship (because of all the stuff, smells, sights, sounds, etc.), but in small doses. They need breaks, they need to wander up to the candles, to the icons, they need to bow, they need to see the Entrances, I try to have them stand during the Lord’s Prayer, Creed, Consecration, Entrances, the Gospel Reading. I also try to come late to church since they’re little and the service is long. St. Barsanuphius of Optina said, “You must not leave the church before the end of the Liturgy, or else you will not receive the grace of God. It’s better to come towards the end of Liturgy and stand through it then to leave before the end.” I use that as a guide (excuse) in my decision.

    I also have a fondness for a story told of an English Catholic writer and his experience of Continental and English Catholic church discipline. I think there’s a decent amount in common between the way Catholics and Orthodox view worship and its variety of disciplines.

    “Belloc in the Catholic Cathedral at Westminster was a familiar sight, and the subject of many anecdotes. There was the story of his standing there during the Mass. It was his custom, learnt in France, to stand, even during the Canon. A fussy sexton approached. “Excuse me, sir, it is our custom here to kneel,” he whispered. “Go to hell,” said Belloc robustly. “I’m so sorry, sir. I didn’t realise you were a Catholic.”” (In ‘Forgotten Champion of The Catholic Thing’ by A.N. Wilson)

    So, there you go. Next time someone thinks they know the only way to do things, you can quite dispassionately tell them to go to hell, at least in your head. I do.

    There’s also a joke told by the late Abp Peter of New York (a French convert to Orthodoxy) about a group of Orthodox arguing about whether you do a small bow or a full prostration at a certain point in the Liturgy. Passions got heated and they group almost came to blows. They agreed to ask the old hermit at the edge of town what the tradition really was on this matter. They processed to his hut, explained to him their difference of opinion and the reasons why each thought their practice correct, and they explained how they had almost come to blows on the matter. “What is the Tradition?”, they asked, exasperated. “That is the Tradition”, he responded, smiling widely.

    Finally, a bishop from Alaska once said that a child’s prayer cannot always be in words and concentration. Sometimes, they simply need to offer their prayer like candles do. Their prayer is to stand still and burn as they can.

    I also notice that my baby tends to try to sing along with things, in his own way. The sound of children in church is the sound of prayer in their language, not ours.

    It’s also true that holiness kind of seeps in, as does the example of one’s parents and other adults in prayer. A pious Greek man never forced his sons to say their prayers, he would simply go into the room they shared at night and he would say his own prayers, near them. Both sons grew up to be priests.

    A Greek elder advised a mother who was terribly upset by her son’s lack of piety and his carousing to stop talking to her son so much about God, and to talk to God more about her son. The Lord appeared to her son and turned him back.

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