It’s not cheating for me to post an excerpt from my book, “Nearly Orthodox” (coming soon from Ancient Faith Publishers!) Ok, it’s a little bit cheating but when I read about the prompt from the Preacher’s Institute for today’s topic it jumped into my brain. So, there’s that.
The first time I rode a two-wheeled bike it was with my older brother J.D. standing behind me, both hands on the back of the wide leather seat, his legs straddling the back wheel to keep it steady. I was nervous. I did not want to fall but more than that I did not want to fail. JD spoke quick directions into my ear, using phrases like, “it’s easy” and “don’t worry” “keep pedaling” and “just go with it.” It was his new Schwinn- racing red and shiny chrome- and my dirty white sneakers barely met the thick black pedals.
My brother instructed me to straighten my legs to put pressure on the top pedal, to push off and get the bike started. So I pressed into it and pedaled while he held the seat and ran behind me guiding the bike, keeping it steady as he held both hands on the wide leather seat. I was beginning to get the hang of it, feeling the balance of the bike, my pedaling working against the pull of gravity with each pump, each straightened leg, each bent knee. I turned to tell him I could do it on my own and when I turned to tell him he could let go, I saw him standing a block down, waving and smiling.
Then I hit the telephone pole.
JD came running up to me and ignoring the bike, he helped me to my feet, checking the damage to my head and limbs as I apologized over and over. It was his brand new bike. I was afraid of breaking something he valued so much. I did not want to disappoint him.
My older brother and I are only 17 months apart. There are photos of us growing up in which he is wearing a certain striped tee shirt one year and then I am wearing the same shirt the following year. We often sat together in the beat up recliner in our living room, arms around each other, talking about the neighbor kids or the new baby in our house. We had a lot in common when we were young. We played the same games-Twister, Sorry and Uncle Wiggily. We watched the same shows- Gilligan’s Island after school, Star Trek on the weeknights and Wonderama on Sunday mornings before church. We liked the same foods- Hot dogs and boxed Mac n Cheese.
At our beginnings we all seem to have a lot in common. And then we grow and change, and suddenly his shirts won’t fit my body type any longer, his soldiers don’t want to hang out with my baby dolls, his politics don’t mesh with my politics. We are still family but we are not the same. We share a history, a starting point, a beginning but our becoming shows where the path divides, long after we sat together in the easy chair, long after our parents’ divorce, long after I crashed his bike into that telephone pole.
Father Gregory did not look at all like the Eastern Orthodox priests I had envisioned. He was young, at least 10 years younger than me. I had to resist the urge to ask the year he graduated High School, to check his ID, to ask for his credentials. His trim modern goatee was a far cry from the long, wiry beards I’d seen worn by the Russian and Greek clergy on the internet, in the movies, on the back of the many books I’d read on the ancient tradition. When we met the first time and he gave me the tour of Holy Trinity I had expected to feel at home there. I looked for the common threads of my own beginnings and this new place. I looked for the lines that intersected, here- for the shared history, the shared starting points from before the path divided- east and west.
The feel of the church was familiar but the faces around me were foreign, the colorful statues of my childhood parish replaced with icons- brooding, ash and gold. The altar was hidden behind a stand of saints, the entry barred by angels, doors, drawn curtains, candles burning, incense soaked oak pews. He spoke in a low voice as he explained the parts of the church, demonstrated the sign of the cross, and venerated the icons nearest the door. When the sunlight hit the high windows of the large room the shafts of light came to rest on the stone floors. I had never set foot in an Orthodox church before this.
I expected the Eastern Orthodox Church to be like the Catholic Church, on steroids. I thought I would have some advantage, being raised Catholic or at least I thought I would have some crossover but it was as different from my Catholic roots as my older brother was to me. We were related certainly, there was the family resemblance but no one would confuse me for him.