Forgiveness Vespers for the Introvert

Vespers

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.

It’s terrifying.

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.

9 comments:

  1. Angela,
    Thank you for somehow summarizing my thoughts in so many ways. You have a magical talent writing your thoughts that relate to so many. Very blessed.

    God bless,

    Fellow parishioner

  2. Angela,

    How is it that the Word could take upon Himself one human body and yet raise all of mankind from death through that one body? Some would be quick to answer, “Because He is God!” While that is certainly true, it is not the correct answer. The correct answer is, “Because all human persons share a common but visibly divided human nature.” We are all descended from Adam. The Fall included the separation of us from each other; the Church is the restoration of mankind from this separation (and not just separation from God). Whenever I sin, even if there is no one else around, I not only sin against my person, I sin against our shared humanity. That is why I stand in front of someone who may be a stranger to me personally and ask for forgiveness; it is on the basis of our shared humanity.

  3. Chaos theory applies to sin, as well. While I might not have sinned against that person in particular, personally, my sins elsewhere bounce around, rebound, cause and affect a multitude of other sins that multiply themselves. Members of the same parish living in the same city and at the same time would be highly unlikely not to have caused sin for another such ‘stranger’.

    All sin is my sin. Why is there sin in the world? because of me. I am Adam, I coveted, I disobeyed, I ate, I sought to be God, I sought to be independent from God, I blamed the woman, and the snake, and God, and my one son killed his brother. Cain’s sin is my sin. Forgive me a sinner, Cain.

  4. Wow, I’m so glad I bumped into this post! The post and the comments so far, both equally exhorting. Thank you for the insights!

    My name is Irene and I come from a Protestant background but I regard myself a follower of Christ regardless of any denomination. I have recently been introduced to Orthodoxy (right when I needed it, I’m amazed at how God works!) and have been following closely reading and learning since.

    I’m so moved by this post, I wish I could attend such service here in Melbourne, Australia.

    Blessings on you all.

    1. Hello Irene!

      I, too, come from a Protestant background and was introduced to it, like yourself, at at a time where I needed it. I am currently a catechumen (a person that is transitioning into the Orthodox faith), and have been reading and learning as well. If I may suggest, if you love this post, you should consider getting her book. I am currently reading it and Angela’s humility and honesty about coming into the Orthodox faith is something that every young woman who is getting ‘into Orthodoxy’ should read. You learn a bit more about the faith, and get a good laugh from it too. Orthodoxy is a long journey, but like Christ found us worthy of pursuit, I find the struggles to maintaining the lifestyle of an Orthodox Christian worthy to pursue in order to understand and experience the holy mysteries of our God.

      Good luck on your research, and be blessed! BTW: love the ‘regardless of denomination’ comment!

      With love in Christ.

  5. Irene… do you know your name, in Greek, means PEACE !!

    A year on from this post we begin a closer walk with God into the recesses of our hearts, minds and lives.
    May God help us to attend to the calling He desires for each one, and remember that there is no fear where love is.

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