Square peg, round hole.

Square Peg/Round Hole

Sometimes we try to fit in. We try very hard. And all the while we know it’s not a good fit. But we have committed time, we have begun to know others trying to fit in, too. It is hard to “man up” and admit that it is not working.

My husband and I have been married 37 years this month. The entire time we dated (2 years) and most of our married life, we knew we did not belong in Southern California. We have life-long friends there. We had established relationships and commitments. We met each other in Southern California. We had our kids and pretty much raised them there. But we longed to escape to seasons and weather, and much more green! Eventually, my husband secured a position in Washington State. We were elated. We told everyone we knew that we were relocating. Very few of our friends talked to us about our relocating. I don’t think they really believed we would do it. And many have no longer kept in touch. A few admitted they were hurt we left. It amazed me. After just two years, our eldest son asked us to relocate, yet again, to Alaska.. We hesitated but then figured that if we did not take that big leap at that point, we never would. And all that leaving was about 12 years ago.

Back Yard about 1pm in December 2021

Our views outside have changed quite a lot. We experience sub-zero temperatures like pros these days. It was just 20 degrees outside and I only wore a sweater, while running errands. (Always keep heavy coat with me, just in case. And gloves – in my coat and in my purse!). And we have adapted to a much colder environment, and we are thriving. We dove into raised beds and gardening in the arctic regions. It’s a whole, new ballgame up here. Our cupboards and freezers are full of hard-earned bounty. We are happy here.

A little more than 18 years ago, we discovered the eastern side of the Catholic Church, in earnest. We had met a Syro-Malabar bi-ritual priest over 25 years ago, and that had been our introduction to eastern thought and practice. But when we entered the Melkite parish for the first time in San Bernardino all those years ago, our lives drastically changed. The Melkites challenged our faith practices. The Divine Liturgy wove its way into our souls. My husband spent 4 years in the Melkite seminary, becoming a deacon. Our lives revolved around our faith – what we ate, the prayers we prayed, the things we did – everything centered on that little parish in San Bernardino. We belonged, in a very deep way, to a vibrant community of like-minded believers and it was our little paradise. Many of our Roman friends did not understand what we loved about it. Many attended my husband’s ordination and were still confused – several remarked that they would go to Mass later, to receive communion, when they had just attended a Divine Liturgy. They did not understand that it was a “valid” liturgy and their “Sunday obligation” had been met. They did not accept different as equal. And that has become apparent in so many aspects of our lives. Accepting different as just different, but not less or less valid.

Historic and current local Roman parish

Covid has been a game-changer on so many levels. One thing it did that continues to frustrate me is that covid “mandates,” which are not laws, closed the doors to our churches. And our churches allowed them to be closed. Pastors cowed to the political pressure of a pandemic that has upturned and twisted our culture. I know we will never be able to return to “normal.” It is frustrating. We were reduced to watching livestream liturgies. And frankly, when that was all that was available, I was actually fine with that. Because I could livestream Melkite liturgies. Up here, there are no Melkite parishes. None. Up here we can find Byzantine, Roman, and Orthodox parishes.(as well as a plethora of Protestant denominations). We attended the Byzantine parish up here for years, but when we moved more than an hour away, we stopped attending (Boy, was I convicted on that excuse last night!). And so we drifted to a local Roman parish, after some friends invited us.

Each week, we would squirm or feel uncomfortable during some part of the Mass. During the height of the pandemic, it was surprisingly orthodox in that the Mass was solemn and beautiful. So were the homilies. Subdued. Thoughtful. Deep. Reverent. Quiet. And then the “restrictions” began to be lifted and more families started returning to the Masses. We could sit in every pew and there were no tapes separating people. The choir came back. The homilies loosened up, too. And we started to experience not just “squirm” moments, but moments that actually made us angry and frustrated. Behaviors we had left behind when we ventured east came crawling back into the Masses. And we grew increasingly uncomfortable.

Let me explain: I am not a “kum-bay-ya” person. I don’t feel comfortable around extroverted expressions of faith. Random “alleluias” and loud “amens” are not part of my DNA. It makes me uncomfortable. Musical accompaniments with varied instruments. Clapping. Standing and clapping. Kids running up and shouts and all sorts of things like that are just not for me. Father cracking jokes and inviting responses during Mass. I prefer old world reverence. I prefer chants. I like a good Tridentine Mass. I love the prayers. And as I gravitated eastward, I realized I was in search of the Holy, in an old world expression that works for me. This past weekend was sort of it for us. Even though we have quite a few friends who attend the local Roman parish, we just cannot do it any longer.

Advent

I began an Advent study using materials provided by the local parish we have been attending. Along with that, I have been reading the Psalms with my Orthodox brethren. And one of the interesting things for me was the process of preparation – not for the Child Jesus, but for His Second Coming. In the Roman material, it prods you to think about your eternity with your faith. On December 3rd we were reminded to let go of things – how fasting and abstinence can enrich your life. And I realized I could pack our truck and load our camper and be off with our dogs and I would be fine with that. Honestly fine. I could separate and leave the rest behind. On the 5th we were reminded about repentance. And I noted I needed to work on the fact that I am still angry our Church doors were closed to us during Covid. The ecclesial gave way to the political – because by now you have to agree it was not to the science! My anger lingers and I am working on that. On the 6th, a change happened to me. St. Therese of Lisieux’s quote was the day’s heading: “There is no joy like that known by the truly poor in spirit.” The reading speculated that at the core of repentance is the acknowledgment that we cannot save ourselves. “Man is a beggar before God.” And “Advent is the end of a long history of waiting for the fulfillment of an ancient promise.” The reflective questions at the end asked, “Are you dry and parched, crippled by sorrow? Are you trying to power through every challenge by your own strength?” And my response, after pondering it, was that I am, indeed parched. The change is that I came face-to-face with what was really bothering me, and I wrote: “Dry because I miss and long for the holiness of Byzantine life. I want Divine Liturgy!” And yesterday’s reflection was from James 4:8 – “Draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” I felt drawn to Byzantine liturgy, and so did my husband. We chose to attend another of our local Roman parishes where they host our Byzantine Mission every other Sunday at 4:00pm. I cannot describe what it was like, really. It felt like falling into a warm pool of holy. We took a deep breath and the incense, the sounds, the icons drew us in. The familiar rhythm of liturgy was a balm to parched souls.

Sacred Heart Byzantine Mission

New icons had been painted since we were last here, and we reveled in their beauty. We sang the Liturgy with a renewed joy and vigor. Father’s homily reflected the readings and the history of Advent. We felt the tug of the traditional, the historical, the reverential, the beauty that is Divine Liturgy.

Divine Liturgy

We have resolved that we will make the effort to experience the divine on a regular basis. We are parched and dry and we miss Byzantine worship. It’s an hour away, but only twice a month. We can make the trek twice a month, and twice a month the mission will be 5 minutes away. I think that is doable!

During last night’s wonderful homily, Father expanded on the story of the celebration being planned, from the readings, and how the host invited more people off the street because the original invitees were coming up with excuses not to attend. In those days, preparing to host a celebration could take months of preparation and was very costly. And very few were coming. Father then asked us what our excuses were. Why are we not coming to the celebration? My husband and I immediately looked at one another, and I believe in that moment, we realized we needed to make the effort. There may be odd things that are off, in comparison to a Melkite liturgy, but they are procedural in nature. They do not make us squirm in our seats, nor do they incite anger in us. We felt the holy we had been longing for. We felt the pull, and it filled something in our hearts we had been lacking. We had become square pegs trying to fit into a round hole, trying to be Roman. We are no longer Roman; we are Melkite; we are Byzantine. And that is something we just cannot walk away from. We need to go where we are fed. I believe life is like a salad bar. Find where your soul sings. No matter where it takes us. Try different things to know what works for you. Become comfortable in your own skin. Different is just different: it is not less nor invalid. We learned to embrace change a long time ago. We have been on this journey for over 20 years now, and for us, we still lean eastward…

St. Nicholas Dome

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“Preach the Gospel at all times, and …”

images.talking

Communication is such a large subject. There are college majors – several of them – in communications. (Small group, interpersonal, etc). We all know the different types of media – we have TV, radio, internet. Then there is print media like books, newspapers, magazines. I have embraced “e-books” and love my Kindle Paperwhite. I read every day and carry more than 450 books in my purse on it. Love that technology. We communicate so much without even using words. The opening quote is from St. Francis of Assisi and the full quote is, “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” It is amazing how much we share without even speaking. Our clothes, for example, say a lot about us. I know as the mother of sons, I am often distressed at some of the fashions I see young women wear. But then I remember my parents having fits about my very tight fitting jeans, most of which were low riding bell bottoms worn with crop tops and platform shoes! Ha-Ha! Those were the days – the 60s and 70s (Think Saturday Night Fever). I don’t think I could walk in my old platform shoes these days! And what sort of car we drive also speaks volumes about us, especially when we splatter the backs of them with stickers. I’ve seen some pretty funny ones about stick-figure families on lots of vehicles. We share who we are, without speaking, for most of our lives and we probably don’t even realize it. Body language is now a science, too. We are told how to conduct ourselves for interviews and meetings. There are professionals who read body language for attorneys in cases with juries. And with our friends and families, we may have short-cuts to communicate, as we have grown together over the years. Twins are said to communicate in their own language as children and often still do, as adults. The way we look at others, the way we hold ourselves in public, the terminology we use, says more than we realize. I won’t even get into hair, make-up, and scents (to wear perfume or not?). I am an avid user of essential oils, and scent is a powerful medicine, as well as something that affects our mental health. My sons tease me that they get the benefits of the oils I wear just by hugging me! Truer words were never spoken, my son! Ha-Ha! Communication is something complex, difficult to grasp at times, and when there is an error in communication, it can cause all sorts of problems.

Within our faith lives, we have “buzz words” or specific terminology, as well as symbols we use and others of a similar faith get it, without explanation. I had a cross on my car in my 20s. I went to a gas station late one evening and the attendant (in those days you did not pump your own gas) asked me when I had been “saved.” He went on to tell me his story about his particular date and time. For me, I always felt I was “in process” and could not pin down one of those overwhelming moments when I turned around and life was different, and I was “saved.” So I told him my birthdate. He gave me a funny look and quit talking to me. I just chuckled and drove away. We communicated, but we also mis-communicated. I knew what he meant but I wanted him to see that some of us look at it differently and that words mean different things to different people. Within the large tent of Christianity, there are many words that offend, and many that gather; many that forgive and many that separate. Sometimes I think St. Francis had it right – we need to share our faith by how we interact with those around us, and then add words if they don’t get it. 

Don't compare

In Christianity, there are words used that would be unfamiliar to those who practice Buddhism or Judaism. And there are words used within Protestantism that are mostly unfamiliar to those who solely practice Catholicism. Within the practice of faith in the Eastern Churches, there are words we use that set us apart from the West. And these words delineate who we are. For example, we celebrate the “Divine Liturgy,” we do not have a “Mass.”  All forms of corporate worship are liturgies.  But there is only one Divine Liturgy. It is when we share the Word of God, as well as the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Christ in Holy Communion. Hence, it is a Divine Liturgy.  Our physical communication during the Divine Liturgy is different from the west. Every time we hear the word “Trinity,” or when the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are mentioned, we make the Sign of the Cross. The first time I shared our Divine Liturgy with some Roman Catholic friends, that was one of the things they noticed, how often we crossed ourselves. We also rarely sit. The explanation I was given was that because we believe Christ is as present in His Word as He is in Communion, we stand. When someone important comes into a room, we stand (a dignitary, or our superiors) and Christ present among us deserves our respect. So we stand in His presence. We bow when the Gospel Book is processed in, and when the Holy Gifts are processed in. We stand from the time the Gifts are presented until after they are consumed and the Deacon cleans the Holy Table. And this is an example of when I am using terminology that is readily understood. Because I am sure my Byzantine and Eastern priest friends and my deacon-husband are cringing, as it is not really a “Holy Table,” but you will understand that if I call it that, rather than its proper name of the “Prothesis” or “Table of Preparation.”  The Prothesis, or table, used by the Deacon and Priest is not the same as the side table used by Eucharistic Ministers in the Roman Church. We have an enclosed Holy Place, behind the Iconostasis. It is not a raised platform and altar area, as is common to the West. Only those who have been ordained in the Church are typically supposed to go behind the Holy Doors. In some parishes altar boys are permitted back there, but it is not the normative practice. I remember one year, preparing the Church for Pascha.  We ladies arrived on a crisp Wednesday morning (always before Holy Thursday) to begin cleaning. I was on a ladder (yes, I actually climbed a ladder) cleaning our beautiful candelabras, and as I watched one of the older ladies, trying to clean the Holy Place, entered on her knees, making the sign of the cross over and over again. She had a headscarf securely wrapped around her, and was continually praying as she scrubbed the tile floor (still on her knees and barefooted). She continued praying the entire time she was in the Holy Place, asking for blessings and praying for forgiveness for entering such a Holy Place, backing out on her knees as she finished cleaning. It made me tear up and realize how I did not respect it the same as she did, having gone back there on several occasions to speak to our priest or my deacon husband. I have not entered the Holy Place in any parish since. She communicated so much to me by her actions, and her bodily expression. I was humbled and awed, and I have never forgotten that moment.

images.talking.words

Communication is fraught with danger and pitfalls, and the use of our words is one of the biggest danger zones to misunderstanding one another. But words also can define who we are and give us our spiritual identity. They can give us a personal identity. Many women no longer take the last name of their husband upon marrying, and some couples take each other’s names. They wish to be known as both of them, rather than just the husband’s last name. It is an identity that is important to many of us. Quite a number of modern women hyphenate their names with their husband’s, and many eschew the use of the term, “Mrs.” in favor of “Ms.” I have had my married name much longer than my maiden name, and no longer really identify myself with my maiden name. More than a decade ago, I was a Roman Catholic and the language of Roman Catholicism is quite often forgotten these days, and not used, because I identify more as a Byzantine, Melkite Greek, Catholic. Our words and our traditions are different and unique and we should embrace them to assist us in identifying ourselves with the Church to which we belong, in my humble opinion.

Gerontissa Gabriella.2

Words help give us our identity and help define us, but still, our actions speak so much louder. Who we are remains into eternity, as well as what we say. I recall a saying that goes something like, “One hundred years from now, it won’t matter what car I drove, what kind of house I lived in, how much I had in my bank account, nor what my clothes looked like, but, the world may be a little better because I was important in the life of a child.”  We can take that and apply it to our souls. When we stand before God, how we conducted ourselves in this world certainly will matter. And our verbiage as we conducted ourselves definitely counts – it is part of our character. Even if you do not believe in God, there is nothing to lose by acting as though there is a God. (Also known as Pascal’s Wager – that’s for another post). 

I bring all this up because people seem to want to impose sameness everywhere. “We should all be the same.” No, we need to respect our differences and celebrate them. We need to respect the differences of others, and warmly embrace them. “For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known.” (1 Cor 13:12) I am often angered when people want to impose their standards upon my reality. And quite often, at least for me, it is in my practice of being a Byzantine, Eastern Rite, Catholic. I am not a Roman Catholic. I speak a different liturgical language in many instances, and my spirituality, the spirituality of the east, is different. Not that we do not believe the same things, we just express them differently. And if you attend a Byzantine or other Eastern Rite Church and cannot tell the difference between a Divine Liturgy and a Mass, someone is doing something wrong. 

Apstls_Trips2

When Christ asked His Disciples to go into the world and to baptize the entire world, they were obedient (as far as they could travel in those days). The map above is hard to read, because it is so condensed, but here is what it shows: Bartholomew preached in Mesopotamia (Iraq), Turkey, Armenia and India. James the Lesser preached in Damascus (Syria), and was the first Bishop of Jerusalem.  Andrew preached in Georgia (Russia), Instanbul (Turkey), Macedonia, and Greece.  Peter was acknowledged as the head of the early Church and preached to Christians in Jerusalem, Judea (Palestine) and in Antioch (Syria) where he is considered the first patriarch (Bishop) of the Orthodox Church. He finally went to Rome, where he established the Roman Catholic Church and was its first Bishop. John preached mostly with Peter, but went into Asia Minor (Turkey) and was banished the the Island of Patmos, but returned to Esphesus (Turkey) where he eventually died. Thomas was one of the first to preach outside the greater Roman Empire and reached Babylon (Iraq), Persia (Iran), China, and India. He established the Church in India and was stabbed to death in Madras, India. James the Great (brother of John) preached in Iberia (Spain) and later returned to Judea at the spiritual request of the Mother of God. (His history in Iberia is amazing – Google “Santiago de Compostela”). Philip preached in Greece, Syria, and in Turkey and usually accompanied Bartholomew. Matthew preached in Ethiopia (Africa), Judea (Israel), Macedonia, Syria, and Parthia (northwest Iran).  Jude Thaddeus preached in Judea (Israel), Persia (Iran), Samaria (Israel), Idumea (near Jordan), Syria, Mesopotamia, and Libya.  It is believed he traveled and preached also in Beirut, Lebanon, and traveled with Bartholomew to Armenia. Simon the Zealot is believed to have preached in the Middle East, North Africa, Egypt, and Mauritania, and even Britain. 

Why did I share all of that? To demonstrate that our Church is universal, and made up of unique cultures, each one diverse and equal.  And each time an Apostle established a Church, it was established where they preached and where they were. What they did not do was change the cultural norms in the places where they established the Church. The beliefs are the same, but they were practiced in ways the local Church understood. One is not better than the other. They are different. We love our universal our Church is… Christianity is in itself a universal faith. If you wear a cross around your neck anywhere in the world, you are communicating your faith to others without saying a word. In the world of the Egyptian Coptic Christians, because there was such persecution, they took to having a small cross tattooed on their inner right wrists. It is a practice they still have, delineating themselves from other faiths in a very diverse culture. Even today, in the USA, Coptic Christians will be given a cross tattoo on their wrists, to let everyone know their faith. They speak volumes without saying a word.

Dostoevsky

I have been struggling with my anger when people do not respect the verbiage of the faith I practice, where they insert terminology that is not common to the practice of Eastern Catholicism. It bothers me when traditions are set aside because people are not familiar with them, coming from a western mindset. I majored in Anthropology and Biblical Archeology in college. I have a different mindset, in that I love learning new things, new cultures, new traditions. I love embracing new things. But I also realize that I am only a sojourner. I am temporarily on this earth. Even if I cringe when a term is used that should not be, a practice is done that should not be, clothing worn that should not be, I am struggling inside myself to offer up prayers and to also pray for understanding, while remaining silent. I have come to realize that essentially, we are all the same. It has been hard won, that knowledge. We are Christians and we want the same thing – we want to be granted an eternity with Our Lord. Our goal is to welcome and include, not to be exclusionary and isolating. Our words can have devastating effects when we say them in anger or out of frustration.

Arm around shoulder

So I am trying to guard my tongue. But I also pray that others will respect the differences, and perhaps want to learn about them. Let’s exult that we are different, that we worship differently, and that we are not the same as every other Church on every other corner. It is what draws us in and keeps us there – our unique expression of our Christian faith. So pray for me that I have more patience, a quiet tongue, and can pray for others rather than be angry with them for not coming fully into communion with our Byzantine faith.

St Ambrose

I know that keeping a Holy Silence is an honor to God, but I also know that not speaking right away also honors God. Because in keeping our tongues silent, we grow closer to Him and also gain wisdom. I will continue to feel blessed for discovering this wonderful Byzantine faith, this faith of the Eastern Church. And I will also continue to feel blessed that I grow closer to God each time I bite my tongue! Lesson learned.  Well, learning…