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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…