My heart is so full of love. But once in awhile, it is also filled with pain. Pain comes to us from so many sources. We can feel pain because it belongs to us, or we can feel pain on behalf of people we see being wronged. We all have a variety of relationships in our lives, from many different areas, and one of them occasionally causes pain. And right now, I am experiencing pain and it has come from my spiritual family. Which makes me especially saddened; the pain that much more acute. The pain is mine, but it is also on behalf of those I see as being wronged.
In all communities, there are always issues with communication. Sometimes we just do not communicate properly, what our hearts are trying to express, and we create difficulties. I often run into problems with the written word. Words on paper (or computer screens) are lifeless. They are scratches on a hard surface, but they are not proper communication. Proper communication is when two people can sit with one another, with no other distractions, and really talk with one another. And in our world of all sorts of media and noise, that is becoming less and less a skilled or experienced occasion. Often when we do find ourselves in a communication-rich environment, we forget about truly talking to one another. Anger in communication does no one any good. In a past post, I spoke to my anger and that some anger is justifiable. And it truly is. Our Lord was angry and overturned the money-changers’ tables in the Temple. They had profaned His Father’s House and turned it into a market place; a place of lying and cheating, a place of selling things that should not be sold. Quite often, we can metamorphose our faith communities into similar places when we allow anger and perceived inequities rule our part of the conversation. We interpret words in ways they are not meant, and we often find our anger rising to the surface in record-breaking time. There are so many people who truly do not listen, already forming their responses before the speaker has completely finished, presupposing the intent of the speaker. And it damages entire communities when anger rules conversation and communication.
Our words, and the way we choose to use them, stay with us for all eternity, as Gerontissa Gabriela says so well above. (Gerontissa is a Russian word for Elderess, the female in charge of a women’s monastery). And recently words were said and actions taken that disappoint and hurt. There are growing pains and then there are pains that only “family” can inflict on one another. When you are part of a faith community that is undergoing big changes, there can often be things said/actions taken that are not a part of the best interest of the community, but are taken/said out of hurt and misunderstanding. Change is always difficult, especially in a community that is growing and changing in ways that are not familiar, with many members new to their faith. And becoming a part of a community that is different from the mainstream, with loads of traditions and a differing spirituality, is a difficult sort of change, all on its own. Throw in becoming a part of a community undergoing change itself and you have a recipe for all sorts of disasters.
Our first step into the Byzantine world was through a friend who invited my husband to take an Icon class with her, under the tutelage of a master icnonographer. At the time, we were devotedly Roman Catholic. My husband has an artsy side of him and had done some gorgeous tole painting on wooden and cloth projects for gifts for me, and for our family and friends, and so my friend thought he would love to learn this “technique.” My husband thought “painting on wood” and having a religious subject could be something fun to learn. The iconographer, at the very beginning, took the entire student class to the local Byzantine parish, to have their hands blessed. It was our very first exposure to Byzantine spirituality. And it was mesmerizing and unforgettable – the Holy Oil smelled so strongly of roses! It was beautiful. And it turned discovering another way to “paint” on wood into “writing icons” and learning to pray every step of the way, changing our prayer life. It also changed our world, and we did not even realize it fully at the time.
A few years later, we stepped further into the eastern world by attending our first Divine Liturgy at a Melkite Greek Catholic parish during Lent. “Sophia – orthoi!!!” Oh my…oh my. The sights, smells, and sounds captivated us and we were drawn to truly enter into the eastern way of Lent…we were hooked. Our first exposure to the East was to fast for 40 days! It was an explosive way to become Byzantine! The ways and means of experiencing eastern spirituality through the lens of the Melkite world changed our lives forever. We became deeply Melkite, deeply Byzantine, and rejoiced in this discovery of faith, becoming re-energized Christians. And we loved every moment of Divine Liturgy, learning ways and traditions so ancient, the origins of them went back to Apostolic times. We learned prayers and tones that were already considered ancient when put to paper. We learned recipes only handed on from mother to daughter, orally, for generation after generation; many of which were served only once a year or on specific occasions (like at funerals, for example). We learned to love the gift of life, and we learned how to truly mourn the loss of life. The Melkite tradition of mourning for the dead is like no other. (Except perhaps the Irish, who are from Ireland- they know how to mourn!!) We also learned to celebrate after we mourned. And we also learned the apex of the liturgical life in the Byzantine world is EASTER. It is not Christmas. We would fast during Lent, we would prepare for Pascha, and we would mourn the Death of Christ. But then the Resurrection happens! It is the sole reason we are Christians. Christmas would be meaningless without Easter. Easter is what defines us; it is what makes us followers of the Risen Lord! And at the Easter Vigil, from around ten o-clock in the evening, until around three o’clock in the morning, we walked through Christ’s travels in Hades; we shared his becoming Our Resurrected Lord. And we sang His Resurrection with loud joy: CHRIST IS RISEN FROM THE DEAD; BY DEATH HE TRAMPLED DEATH, AND TO THOSE IN THE TOMB HE GRANTED LIFE. We sang it so loud, it rattled the rooftops. We sang it in Arabic, in English, and in Greek, and we would even throw in some Spanish! The chandeliers swayed as the Holy Spirit made its way through our entire temple. It was a glorious experience and we loved every moment of it. Most times, by the end of the Easter Vigil, many of us had lost our voices! It was glorious. We would make our way over to the hall at 3:00 am and then we feasted! Gloriously feasted! We laid children on the floors as they slept right through the feasting, but we would feast on until the sun was almost in the sky again. CHRIST IS RISEN!
But some traditions are not used to this glorious yelling about Christ’s Resurrection, because it is “over-the-top” and not dignified enough. Don’t you think the Apostles sang and yelled with joy when Christ appeared among them in the Upper Room, where they were hiding in fear of the Jews?? A miracle in their lifetime – the Messiah being truly present among them. Christ rose from the dead, just like He promised. It is why we believe He is God – the Triune God – the Holy Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. If not for that fact, He would be regarded much the same as any other Prophet. The Islamic faith, although scary and very violent, does much more in honoring our faith than the faith of other religions. They do more to honor our faith than most Protestants do. They acknowledge and love the Theotokos, the “God-Bearer” or “Mother of God.” Most Protestants don’t like to follow that to its logical conclusion. If you discuss it with them, they sort of dodge that part: “Do you believe Christ rose from the dead?” “Yes, I do.” “Do you believe Christ was the Son of God, come to save Man?” “Yes, I do.” “Do you acknowledge Christ is one aspect of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – three in one?” “Yes, I do. ” “Do you acknowledge that Mary was the mother of Christ?” “Yes, I do.” “Well then, since you acknowledge Christ is the Son of God, part of the Holy Trinity, and He is the Son of Mary, She is therefore the Mother of God.” “Well, no….” Ha-Ha! Logic doesn’t follow through! The Islamic faith, however, regards Jesus Christ as one of God’s many Prophets, because they do not accept the miracle of Easter! They do not believe He rose as He promised! They do not celebrate Easter!
As Christians we are called to believe the whole shebang. We cannot pick and choose which comfy things we want to believe in, and throw those uncomfortable things away. “Sometimes we need to swallow the entire pill because chewing it is not recommended.” When you pick and choose what to believe, you are creating your own faith – Pro-test-ant (one who protests). It is also often termed, “cafeterianism” and is one of many illnesses striking our faith. Just as you walk down the line in a cafeteria, choosing what to place on your plate, and what to exclude, many pick and choose what to believe from the offering of faith. Only we believe, that with God, you chose to become a Child of God…the whole God, not just the parts you can deal with.
God died for us on a cross. It was disgusting; that method of killing was meant to be as degrading and painful as it could be. The person being crucified was meant to be an example to the rest of the community and it was supposed to frighten others into not breaking the law – a deterrent. And the Romans were very good at it. If you ever have a chance to go to a course on the Shroud of Turin, or to learn what it was like, physically, for the person in that shroud to die, trust me, you will never go through Easter the same. Even if you do not believe it was Christ in that shroud, it was a man who suffered a Roman Crucifixion, and it will only enhance your understanding of what Christ suffered for each one of us. A great book is “A Doctor at Calvary” (http://www.amazon.com/Doctor-Calvary-Passion-Described-Surgeon/dp/0912141042).
Once Christ went through this horrible death, for three long and very lonely and frightening days, His community huddled together, praying and keeping one another strong, in that Upper Room. We do that, too. It is called Holy Week and Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil Saturday are all a part of that. At the end of our deep prayers and mourning the lack of Light in our world, we welcome Pascha. We celebrate the Empty Tomb. We celebrate the Gift of Life. And we shout about it, because without it, we are all doomed to the earth…to rot away to nothingness. To have this life be just this life, with no more, once our eyes close, and our last breath is taken.
We decorate and we feast – we celebrate as the photo above shows, by greening up our Church…we decorate the empty tomb, we process through the streets and into our churches with a gloriously empty tomb. We celebrate life! This gift of life freely given to those who just believe. And once you have gone deeply into Lent and spent an entire Holy Week at every service and spent hours in a quiet Church after the Death of Christ, weeping for the loneliness of a planet without its God, that first glimpse of everlasting life will take your breath away.
Life is what we, as Christians, celebrate. We do not mope, we don’t let this world take ahold of us, because we have Christ our Lord, and Savior. We need, in this horribly decadent world, to share the Good News with everyone we meet. We need to shout, “CHRIST IS RISEN! HE IS TRULY RISEN!” from the rooftops. We need to give others hope; we need to evangelize by how we live our lives and how we treat those in our community. We have no hopes of bringing others to Christ if we treat each other with derision and contempt.
Many in our community think in their own minds, our clergy is “over the top;” clergy were too loud and noisy, and undignified, during Easter and during this incredibly joyous Easter season. Making derisive remarks to others does nothing to share the Kingdom of God – it tears it apart – and it does not build you up, even if talking trash about others makes you feel superior. Tearing down priests and clergy who are shouting “Christ is Risen” at the top of their lungs, sharing their joy at the Resurrected Christ, does nothing to build our community. Tearing down priests and clergy is not a Christian act. Going behind people’s backs and talking about them does nothing to build the Kingdom of God, or our little community. Gossip kills community. It works to create rifts and tears in our lives as a Christian family. Because we are family. We share Christ with this specific group of people and it is a bond we do not always share with others. For a great majority of us, we are trying to share our faith with our children and family and friends, but many do not feel comfortable with our traditions and perhaps we are even misunderstood in the community at large. Being Byzantine is not for the faint of heart and not for those who prefer “the status quo.” Being Byzantine is not mainstream; it is not normal – it is unique. The spirituality we share is very different. We have specific ways we worship…and imposing standards from other traditions upon the Byzantine/eastern Churches is something Vatican II saved us from. We are free to be who we are, and we are not Latin Rite Catholics. We are Byzantine Catholics…and there are 22 other Churches who are also Eastern and/or Byzantine Catholic and not Roman Catholic. We do it all a little differently. We share a common faith, but our faith expressions are vastly different. And choosing to belong and to work through changes means biting the bullet now and then, and being patient. It took Christ 40 days to do battle with Satan. It took the Jews 40 years because they were not obedient to God’s word, to find their way out of the desert…an entire generation had to die off! The world held its breath for three long days, while Christ was dead to this world, before the Good News of His Resurrection saved us all. We can choose to be a part of what is happening now, or we can choose to stand on the sidelines, offering snide remarks and hurtful comments. But standing on the sidelines is not being a part of a wonderful tradition, one that is undergoing change, trying to recover from some very rough times. And I am hurt by the words of many and hurt by the actions of a few. Hurt for myself, but mostly for our clergy, who love our community.
Clergy and their wives and families have put themselves out there to serve their community. They have gone to Seminary, many at their own expense, with time spent away from their own families for YEARS, so that they can serve their Church and their communities, being fully trained and educated in the faith. The lay people, and those who posture as experts, are nothing more than “im-posters,” many being self-educated and many not being educated in the world of Byzantine spirituality at all. They have not received the vocation, the laying on of hands, the education, or the blessing of the Bishop. They often think to lead a community when they are not even of the same faith tradition. We may lose people when their posturing becomes more important than the truth; when being right in their own minds trumps the good of the community. And we must all “gird our loins” and dig in and do the hard work, the work that brings about positive change and a strong family community of believers. Right now, the pain I am feeling hurts me, but I hurt for our clergy, too, and as the wife of clergy. They have dedicated their lives to service; they are working to make a difference, and in the case of my particular knowledge, they are good, good people.
Christ told us, “Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12: 51-53) And so those who serve understand there will be divisiveness; there will be factions; there will be gossip; there will be those who diligently work to mess things up. It is the nature of who we are as people; we easily rise to be our worst selves. But there is also knowledge in the Glory of God, the love of forgiveness, and the peace found in a community sharing in the love of God. In an earlier post, I spoke of Tertullian’s writings and how he once said, “Look . . . how they love one another (for they themselves [pagans] hate one another); and how they are ready to die for each other (for they themselves are readier to kill each other).”
I fervently ask that we become that community, like our early Church, who put their love for one another on display, who were willing to share the Love of Christ with all people. Become a community known for their love of everyone, even to lay down one’s life for their faith. God grant me the strength to be such a Christian.