Where do we begin? Practical thoughts to navigate the Orthodox year

where-do-we-begin-post

Greetings, and happy fore-feast of the Elevation of the Cross on September 14! (Read more about that here.)

Since starting the Time Eternal podcast nearly a year ago, a number of listeners have requested a list of practical resources to help them stay in sync with the Church year.

I’ve hesitated for a few reasons. First, I think it’s generally best to consult with one’s spiritual father when starting any new effort (like trying to live out the calendar more fully). He’s the first person you should talk to about resources or stepping things up.

I’ve also hesitated because I don’t want to risk making the Church calendar out to be a 365-item to-do list that we can manage with the latest productivity app. Orthodoxy–the liturgical year included–isn’t something we do, it’s something we are becoming. That’s a difficult and beautiful truth, one that I don’t want to deaden with a list of ways to make it trendy.

That said, there are some general, human struggles we all face while trying to live in the Church’s time rather than (just) in the time of this world. Our fallible memory is one such struggle, as are the conceptual-logistical difficulties of merging multiple calendars (Church, civil, etc.) in our day-to-day awareness.  In the spirit of the recent Church new year, I think it’s a good time to talk about resources that can be helpful in these struggles.

Before we get to those resources, though, I’d like to make a purposeful digression and talk about something that can suck all the Joy out of the liturgical year, not to mention life itself: perfectionism.

The people who write to me about the calendar have described it as “overwhelming” because there is so much to do, so much to keep straight. Where do we even begin?

They ask me like I’ve mastered the whole Yearly Time thing. In reality, I’m still learning how time works in the Church, and how it should work in my life. I’m still occasionally getting blindsided by certain feasts that sneak up on me out of nowhere (ahem, I’m looking at You, Feast of the Transfiguration of Christ on August 6th. Just when I think I’m getting the hang of the Dormition fast, You pop up out of the blue and catch me off-guard. Every. Single. Year.) I am frequently in awe of people like my mother-in-law and the many other grandmotherly figures in my parish–they have no smart phones, no google reminders, and yet they show up to all the major (and not-so-major) feasts on time, with perfectly baked prosphora or koliva or basil bushes* and correct change for candles. From my perspective, their lives look like some seamlessly woven tapestry of sacred time perception.

That’s not me. I haven’t grown up in the Church, I haven’t lived in these holy cycles of time long enough for them to have burrowed their way into my subconscious. The feasts I do celebrate are those I’ve usually had to fight long and hard for, taming back the wilderness of my mind’s ignorance and forgetfulness. That’s my reality, that’s what I (try to) give to God.

Back in the early days of my conversion, there was a point when–soon after some of the culture shock of Orthodoxy had begun wore off–I wanted to become chrismated really quickly. I knew I’d eventually end up there, so why not get it out of the way (type-A personality, anyone?) By that point, I’d read a few books or something, and figured I was ready.

My spiritual father, though, wanted me to slow down. I don’t remember his exact reasoning, but one thing he said has remained with me: I needed to “grow into” Orthodoxy. I needed to grow into what would be expected of me, grow into navigating the cultural arena of ethnic Orthodoxy, grow into this different way of living and praying. Mostly, though, I needed to grow into the reality that we never stop growing into the Orthodox Church. We have never fully arrived while in this life–we are being perpetually grafted into the body of Christ.

And we are, I think, continually being grafted into salvific time. It is something we are always growing into.

Where do we begin?

All of this “growing into” talk reminds me of what it’s like learning a new language, something I’ve done a few times in my life and for a while have been trying to learn Greek.

When you learn a language, you must start small. You start with vocabulary and basic phrases. You move on to learn simple grammar. You keep doing this, keep embroidering upon what you know, until the things you are able to say get more and more complex. Maybe some day, you are able to carry on a conversation fluently.

But there’s a small catch. Your passive language skills will always exceed your active ones–not just in your second language, but also in your mother language. You will always understand more than you can say, because it’s simply easier for the mind to comprehend what it’s given than to manufacture something new. It’s why, even in English, we can read great works of literature more easily than write them ourselves.

And it’s why, I think, we can kind of go with the flow of the Church calendar–passively observing and re-observing the same old feast days–for years on end without really activating any sense of awareness in our own lives. We let time pass us by, as though unaware we will one day perish like the beasts of the earth (Psalm 49: 12, 20).

But faith, just like language, is about constantly pushing back that boundary between active and passive, between mindlessness and mindfulness, between living and existing, between death and resurrection.

The Church calendar is one of several frameworks in the Church that allow us to recover the fullness of Life in Christ. For me, the antidote to being overwhelmed was (and continues to be) to start as small but faithfully as possible–and in all things, to try and remain grateful. Is there a saint or a feast you have a particular spiritual connection to? Do your best to make time for it, attend a liturgy, and celebrate with Joy. From there, work outwards. Learn about people that saint affected, or glance through a festal calendar and see what feasts jump out at you. Be curious, learn, pray, and draw near to the times of the Church with thankfulness. When you miss or forget a feast, keep being thankful–it’s probably not a sign of Alzheimer’s and it’s an opportunity to learn humility. Lord willing, you’ll get a second chance, and that’s one of the most beautiful lessons that time in the Church teaches us: as long as you’re on this earth, you’ll celebrate the feast again. It’s never too late to celebrate, thanks be to God!

And here’s another thing we should remember: when a child begins to learn their first words in a language, it brings them joy. They revel in their newfound ability to say things. Single words (“No!” “That?” “Me!”) become entire jokes, wellsprings of laughter that erupt from this new realization that a word will make other humanoids stop and pay attention.

When learning to live into the calendar, we should be like children. We should find joy in the small things, the stepping stones of salvific time we are learning to weave into our lives. There maybe countless saints and infinite feasts, but we are learning time–and eternity–one day at a time, and that is cause for celebration.

Now that we’ve established that getting into the Church calendar isn’t about trying to do all the items of the liturgical-year to-do list, here are some tools that I have found helpful. But I’m equally interested in how you navigate the calendar in your own life–so share your thoughts, comments and resources below!

  • An Actual Church Calendar – Having a hard copy calendar hanging in your home, maybe even in multiple locations, is a good first step to knowing what time it is in the Church. In our home, we have several varieties–large, wall-hanging calendars as well as smaller, pocket-book size ones that our diocese puts out. Ideally, you want to have at least one calendar that includes not only fasts and feasts, but also the lectionary readings for each day. Put calendars in useful and visible places. We keep one large calendar hanging in our entry hallway and another in our prayer corner. I also keep a large-ish calendar (with the readings listed) as kind of an over-sized bookmark in one of my Bibles. My husband keeps the smaller, book-sized calendars in his desk drawer and (back when we owned a car) in our glove compartment. In terms of calendar holdings, we may be on the extreme end–neither of us have data on our phones and both of us work in the office of our Metropolis, so we’re frequently in the situation of needing to know when certain feast days are. But I’m generally of the opinion that more calendars = better. In case neither your parish nor diocese has printed or circulated one for use, check out Ancient Faith’s 2016 Icon Calendar. It has beautiful icons and lists major feasts / fasts that will be relevant regardless of your diocese. (Here’s the 2017 calendar if you’re looking to buy ahead.)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America’s Online Chapel – If you prefer a more digital approach, this might be for you.  On this page are various resources. In the main section, you’ll find an overview of today’s saints, readings and prayers. At the bottom, there’s a form to get this information emailed to you on a daily basis. On the sidebar, there’s also a monthly or yearly view to get a bird’s eye picture of things. Note: this is the best “real time” online Orthodox calendar in English that I know of, but if you are not in a Greek Orthodox diocese, there will be small variations–and some traditions favor certain saints over others, so you might not hear about the same saints on this calendar as you will when you attend your parish. Check your diocese’s homepage to see if they have similar resources if you are concerned about this.
  • Ages Initiative Digital Chant Stand – You don’t have to be a chanter to appreciate this website. It’s particularly helpful if the services at your parish are in a language you don’t understand. Some parishes have books with the English translation of the liturgy, but this usually won’t contain the day’s Troparia, Kontakia or Gospel and Epistle readings, which change every day and with every service.  I try to download the services to my smartphone ahead of time, and it helps keep me a more active participant in the liturgy.
  • Blueprints for the Little Church book – This is a wonderful guide (written by two friends of mine!) for how to apply some of the more practical aspects of Orthodoxy to your family’s everyday life. It’s great for those new or old to the Orthodox faith–we’re all learning, right? The book is especially intended for parents with children, however I found this really helpful on a lot of levels even though I don’t have children. In the back are activity ideas throughout the liturgical year.

I know I’ve barely scratched the surface. Do you have any suggestions for people in regards to the Orthodox calendar? How do you stay grounded in the liturgical present? Have any resources proven especially useful to you or your family? Let us all know in the comments below!

*In Greek parishes, Basil plants are often brought to Church on major feast days, especially the elevation of the Cross.

 

 

 

 

 

 

5 comments:

  1. thank you for helping me appreciate that “as long as you’re on this earth, you’ll celebrate the feast again”.

    Also, thanks for warning about perfectionism. “Do your best to make time for it, attend a liturgy, and celebrate with Joy” – great advice!

    I would add the recent episodes from Bee the bee, prepared to help us begin (again 😉 :

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/bethebee/six_simple_ways_to_make_the_most_of_the_year_ahead

    http://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/bethebee/five_ways_to_jumpstart_your_spiritual_life

    Glory To God!

  2. Dr. Roccas,

    Recently I had to take a long drive, so I downloaded your podcasts based on the concept/title alone. First of all let me say excellent work!! You are quite creative in your theology and how you synthesize various Fathers/theologians/commentators into your subject and I hope this is getting the attention it deserves. I am only 1/2 through your podcasts but you set up your subject brilliantly.

    As someone in a distant education program in the Church (seminary: a deacons formation program) I would be interested if you have thought about the recent phenomenon (or rather resurgence of thread going back at least to Origen) of Orthodox universalism. In particular, what does universalism *mean* in relation to the normative Christian meaning of time? I suspect that it (in addition to the ontological implications to personhood) negates the Christian understanding of time as creature and our relation to it as this “time of our repentance”. In any case I would be interested if you have done any work in this area.

    Since this is not on subject to this blog post, feel free to delete this comment and contact me directly (or not at all ;). I would however be sincerely interested in your thoughts on this.

    Christopher

    1. Hi Christopher! Thanks for your kind words. To be honest, I don’t know very much about universalism, certainly not enough to say anything substantive about it. May God bless your studies! 🙂

      1. When I first encountered this strain of thinking about universalism in Orthodoxy (which like I said is very old and has some rather large characters involved, for example Origen (for), St. Gregory of Nyssa (for…possibly) and St. Photius the Great (against)) one of my first thoughts was “Universalism destroys the meaning of time” (at least “destroys” in a Christian context of how we are to “spend our time” 😉 ). What is time for if it is a simply a dimension (one of many) for the expression of a process of becoming where the end is compelled and “predestined”? Universalism in the Christian context brings up a whole host of questions but one I have not really seen addressed by those who discuss it is the meaning of time in a universalist ontology/metaphysics. I like the way you have addressed time in a Christian context and was hoping you might have given this question some thought. I hope some day you do! Thank you for your response and keep up the good work.

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