FAIR WARNING….I GOT RATHER WORDY. I HOPE YOU CAN WEATHER IT TO THE END! BLESSINGS!!!
As a writer/blogger, I often get ideas and they swirl around inside my head until I feel like I have given them the curtesy of a full review. And when I think I am done thinking and have reached an internal consensus, I usually start writing. And if I am honest, it is at the keyboard where these ideas fully germinate. As I stated in my bio here, I do not claim to be an excellent writer, or historian, or theologian. I am just a mom, a woman, musing on things in her life, and sharing them here. And sometimes these ideas take a long time to reach the keyboard phase because I am thinking thoughts that are not particularly popular. But, oh well, here goes:
My journey to my here and now has been rather circuitous. I have become a woman of faith while running from it, at the same time. I spent my childhood being taken to various Christian denominational Churches. Each time we would move denominations, we would be baptized again – our entire family. I have been baptized seven times, including my infant baptism. My parents married in the Church of England – in the “high Church” rite. I supposed it was because that is what we were – Church of England. When my parents immigrated, they chose the Episcopal Church, because it was the closest thing they recognized. I was baptized at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in 1956, in California. I believe my brother was baptized there as well. But strangely enough, I discovered through my paternal grandparents that the family was actually Methodist, although I never attended a Methodist Church during my parent’s Church journeys. My grandparents on my dad’s side were staunchly Methodist. My mom’s parents did not attend Church, to my knowledge, and neither did my mom. I do not recall my mom ever being baptized, but she probably was. (Not sure as what). My parents married in the Church of England because everyone thought the photographs would look amazing. I was so let down. Ha-Ha. Spent so many years of my youth being proudly British and Church of England – High Church no less. In my adult life, I spent years going from Church to Church, denomination to denomination. I even spent time I fondly refer to as my “let’s be Jewish” phase. I loved those courses and the Rabbi and I had some wonderful conversations. We would meet for coffee outside of my class time. He eventually told me he loved how learned I was in the OT, but he knew I would never convert! LOL. (My minor in college was Biblical Archeology). Eventually I officially associated myself with Geneva Presbyterians. Of all the rites in Christianity. But to be honest with you, it was the church structure and the materials used to build it that held me there. It literally smelled like an old-world castle, and had the same feel of them on the walls. The pastor was great and I became affiliated when I was asked to teach an adult women’s bible course on archeology and the Bible. How far I have roamed since my 20s.
I was referred, through my courses at Geneva Presbyterian, to other Presbyterian parishes in the Southern California area and had quite the full calendar, all while attending school and working full time. I happened to teach a course at a parish in Placentia, CA. As I was exiting, with a group of women my mom’s age, I noticed a group of young adults at the church next door, having an awful lot of fun. They were at the Catholic (gasp!) Church. I bravely walked over and introduced myself. They welcomed me and asked me to join them, as their evening was just beginning (ahhh…to hang out with my own age group!). And that began a leg of my journey that has ultimately led me east…always east. I did end up converting to Catholicism, much to the chagrin of my ostensibly Methodist family members, and that was in 1983. We married in 1984 and discovered we were not really your typical mainstream Catholics, at all. We were far more conservative and were not really appreciative of the folk music and lots of Eucharistic Ministers (most of whom were women), and we preferred male altar servers. It was a progressive thing because we were reading, going to conferences, and becoming knowledgable Catholics. We were not what you call the “incense” Catholics who only go on Christmas and Easter, or only for the major sacraments, who attend “regular” Christian churches in the meantime. We were devoted to our faith.
We came across Catholic homeschooling and that really changed our lives. The people we met, the priests we confessed to and learned from, would greatly alter our faith. For me, it became deeper, the more we dove into it. And it became an every day, all day, part of our lives. Daily morning mass with little children was no trouble because of the graces I was receiving, just being there.
We gravitated to the old ways of doing things. We reveled in incense and altar boys and the priest who had confession before every mass. The priest who stood before us, also facing the altar. The wearing of dresses and veils. The solemnity of holy Mass. We were drawn to monasteries and monastics. My favorite retreat, hands down, is a silent retreat. And as a person of many words, I can tell you that a silent retreat is the most healing thing I have ever done. The first one I went to, I went with a gabby friend. We both felt rejuvenated and refreshed and ready to climb back into the trenches (at the time, it was homeschooling our kids).
We finally landed in the east. One of the things about this journey of mine (of ours as a couple), is that I have tried to step back to see what it is that has drawn me, or driven me, eastward. One of the things that strikes me is this: when I was ostensibly Protestant, whichever denomination it was, I felt like Church services were an outreach of a lecture hall. We would come in, be seated, sing a couple of songs to get us feeling united and one, and then we would have a lecture or talk on a subject. Afterwards, we would pray perhaps, and depending on the denomination, we would share communion of some sort, and then leave again. The center of the entire service was the lecture. It was not Christ’s presence in His people, in His Word, or His Real Presence in the Eucharist. It was the man in the pulpit. (And at one nominally Catholic parish we attended for just a few months, the priest was too tired and so the nun/principal of the school always gave the homilies. Ugh. Not a fan.) What happened is this – we were drawn to a more communal worship where the priest led us towards God. Christ’s presence in His Word was honored equally with His Presence in the Eucharist through actions (incensing, standing, processing). And we were led by the priest into this mystical relationship with Christ. We were not lectured first and only. We prayed. We chanted. We bowed our heads and were incensed. We were led into battle in this crazy world. We had a man, who was truly manly, lead us. He did not look at us and have us mimic his movements. He prayed for us, and we prayed together. His ordination was honored and his hands are holy, because he brings us God. God! Not a symbol, but God Himself.
And that, my tired friends (if you read all the way through this) brings me to the news topic of yesterday, and partially today as well – the new book supposedly by Pope Benedict and Bishop Sarah (questions are being raised about who really wrote it) about the need for celibacy in the priesthood, and how it also speaks to the position of the priest in the community. With the book was brought up the subject of the priest facing the people or leading the people. It seems to me like it is all intertwined. In the east, there is no question about the many issues facing the Latin church, and it is so refreshing. However, as Rome is tending to lean more and more to the liberal left in all things, this bears noting.
ad orientum or ad populum are the terms used by the Latin Church to describe which way the priest faces – towards the traditionally placed tabernacle behind the altar, or towards the people (literally turning his back on God – which is one of many reasons most Catholic Churches moved the Tabernacle off to a side chapel or sometimes to its own building [a parish in the Chino/Ontario area of Southern California is one example of that]). And when the Church, mostly from erroneous interpretations of Vatican 2 documents, started to protestantize (a new word) our Catholicity, I think that began a great undoing. It is one of the reasons there is a Pope Francis, who allows the Pacha-mamma thing to get out of hand and allowed actual tree worshipping at St. Gregory Lateran in Rome. It is one of the reasons the youth, and many of us adults, fled the Church for eastern pastures. And it is one of the reasons that celibacy is not the answer to all things Catholic Church.
In the eastern-rite Churches, and the Orthodox world-wide, most priests are married. They bring such a different vibe to a parish. There is much more emphasis on children and families. Rectories are filled with the scent of home-cooked meals and children running around. It is a home, shared with a parish. The entire Divine Liturgy is completely different. The priest is leading us in prayer and towards the apex of Divine Liturgy, which is Communion. It is not the homily. It is not a band up on the altar leading people in folk songs, many of which should not be sung in Church. It is Divine Liturgy, where the mystical gates of heaven open, the angels descend and worship around the altar with us. It is mystical and divine and deeply human. Most eastern Churches, and most Orthodox, do not have pews. We stand around our priest. We watch as he reads the Gospel, looking at the book from which Our Lord comes to be amongst us. We are surrounded by scent and sound, vision and touch, of the Mystery of Christ. And as Communion comes to us, we drink and eat the Mystical Body of Christ among fellow believers. It is something I wish everyone could experience at least once.
A priest maintaining his state in life in a chaste manner means he honors who he is and where he is at this moment. I do not believe marriage gets in the way of a priest leading his people in prayer and the sacraments. He is one of the people, chosen by them, to lead them. My husband sought the approval of our parish, which is traditional, before he began his road to ordination as a deacon. The parish stood and applauded his request. Unanimously. The role of the ordained deacon in the east, and certainly in the Orthodox Churches, is far different than in the Latin Church. And the role of the deacon’s wife is also so very different. I was asked for my permission for my husband to be ordained. The Church recognizes that the couple will be serving together. My husband, more often than not, gave the homily. The deacon is responsible for educating the people in the faith. The priest is responsible for pastoring his flock, seeing to their problems and helping them develop in their faith. He brings them the sacraments, whereas a deacon only assists with them. Together, the married deacons and married priests provide a strong and solid foundation for a parish. And it is not taken lightly, but is a vocation for both husband and wife. Like I said earlier, it is a totally different vibe. And it is 1000s of years old.
Francis Chan, a famous evangelical pastor, recently preached on the real presence in the Eucharist. He came to this by studying the early Church Fathers. He also learned about the position of the priest and how the Protestants took the idea of the pulpit from the Catholic Church’s ambo (the ambo of St. Peter’s in Rome is above). He did not know that the focus of all worship was on Christ in the Eucharist and it was only in the last 500 years it changed. And the position the priest faced changed at relatively the same time. It is all intertwined. He lamented the change in focus from sacrament to sermon by the Protestant churches. He began the Cornerstone Church in his living room. But he left that church because he was fleeing “that celebrity thing.” In his sermon, he spoke about how the “Church is more divided now that ever before….and that once upon a time, no one, no one disputed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.” It was quite a moving sermon and you can easily google it.
The world is awakening. There are primal questions of our faith, for all Christian denominations. And those questions are being asked around the world. The fact of which way a priest faces, where the Tabernacle is located (or even if you need one), and whether or not priests can marry, are basic questions. They are questions the world is looking for answers to. I only wish I could help them face east. There are answers there, that have been there, since the Apostles established Churches around the world, just as Christ commissioned them to do. Perhaps that circuitous route I have traveled is a personal journey all of us need to travel, on our own.
Right now, the world is in a chaotic scramble for power and place. Christians usually end up with the scraps from the table. Now, more than ever, Christians need to be seated at that table. And those of us who have looked, journeyed, tried, and tested our faith, well, we have found Truth. We have found Home. And I have to say that I believe it is further east than many dare to look. And that can make so many people uncomfortable.