In a few hours I will take up my usual place at church, there along the back wall in the corner. I will stand and listen and pray and think about the sounds of the traffic outside, about the laundry list of things I’ve left undone this weekend, about the trip I’m taking on Thursday out of the country. I will watch the candle light dance. I will inhale the deep scent of incense as we prepare, once again, the long descent into Lent and then the steady climb to Pascha.
For the non-Orthodox readers, I should explain that we start Lent with about 5 weeks of preparation, slowly taking out fasting foods from our diet, slowly incorporating more prayer, more attention until we reach the culmination in Forgiveness Vespers. In my parish, we gather on Sunday evening for the Vespers service and then dovetail into the “forgiveness” part of the service.
Okay, well, maybe it’s not terrifying for everyone but part of me believes that it is. I believe this because what we do at this service is so far out of line with our normal culture that is must be daunting, even to the most ardent extrovert, the most devoted social butterfly. We stand in two lines, all of the faithful, facing each other. And at the appointed time we bow to our fellow parishioner, moving into a deep metania or full prostration depending on one’s physical abilities,
We ask for forgiveness, “Forgive me, a sinner”
We are offered forgiveness, “God forgives and I forgive”
We are asked the same, “Forgive me, a sinner”
We offer the same, “God forgives and I forgive”
We do this again and again, moving from one congregant to another until at last we have asked for, given, and received forgiveness. It is a remarkable and vulnerable service.
I told you, it’s terrifying.
And now that I have experienced it, I would not miss it for the world.
I am, by nature, an introvert. Left to my own devices I’d never leave my house. I can get everything I want and need these days online. I can even conduct friendships and conversations through the internet and telephone, complete with emoticons and if necessary, Facetime. It’s an introvert’s dream, for a while, at least. I do need hands to hold though. I do need actual face time and not just pixels on a screen. I know this about myself and so I do force myself to go out and see and interact with people. I don’t like to go but I do go and then I’m always glad I did.
So while Forgiveness Vespers is terrifying for most people given the nature of asking for forgiveness from a variety of people with whom I have varying levels of friendship, it’s especially a stretch for an introvert. I always have a “people” hangover the next day and sore muscles from all the bowing and prostrating.
It feels amazing. I wish I could find a way to tell you how that’s possible. I just don’t know how it’s possible. It’s a miracle, or as close to a miracle as I’ve come. It’s certainly a mystery.
One thing I will say about Forgiveness Vespers, especially to someone who may not have any experience in the Orthodox tradition– it’s different from the inside. My son asked me why he should ask forgiveness from someone who is basically a stranger to him and I can see his point.
“What if I haven’t done anything that needs forgiving?”
“How could I have wronged someone I don’t even know?”
To these questions, I’m likely to default to descent. I like the word, especially in the context of prayer and humility. To me, the process of asking this forgiveness is about the person before me, and the person that he or she might represent– a cab driver I cussed out, the kid I punished unfairly, the harsh words I offered to my spouse, the gossip that I poured out over lunch to a friend, the damaging thoughts of condescension or comparison, the anger I hold on to years longer than I ought to have, the snide remark to no one in particular, the posturing, the positioning, the tearing down of a stranger, a relative, a fellow human– known or unknown. And it works both ways, I ask forgiveness, I’m offered forgiveness, I’m asked forgiveness, I grant forgiveness. It’s a wound binding ceremony. It’s a lesson in healing.
This is the essence of Forgiveness Vespers.
Of course, it’s terrifying. How can it not be terrifying?
And it’s moving and energizing and lifting and freeing too, even for a person who would rather stay home, check Facebook, or read a novel, or drink alone, or go to bed early. If I dig deep, gather my courage, change out of my pajamas and enter into to the candle-lit, incense-infused dark of the Vespers, something profound awaits, something mysterious and wonderful, something miraculous. It is worth the effort.