Icons of Innocence

February 21, 2010

The Holy Innocents. As a mother I find this icon incredibly moving.

In the middle of today’s homily a baby on the other side of the temple began to cry. A minute later my own toddler began to wail, too. The priest’s voice was not overly loud and it seemed to me that he was completely drowned out by these two wailing children. I quickly exited to calm down my son. When I returned my husband told me that the priest had mentioned that babies are “icons of innocence.” What a beautiful view of young children, and so different from the “beat the sin out of ’em” viewpoint that I sometimes hear in other Christian circles.

While there may be some differences among individual parishes, overall I really appreciate the way that children are treated in the Orthodox church.


When my husband and I first learned about Orthodoxy we initially brushed it aside as “too Catholic.” We saw pictures of Divine Liturgy at a nearby parish and I told him in an email “Don’t think I could get into this. Maybe I could if I lived in Europe and had an old-world kind of lifestyle.” The pomp and circumstance of the Liturgy just seemed so far from what I was accustomed to in my modern suburban life. As a Protestant I couldn’t relate to a style of worship that contained anything visually ornate.

We had read a lot about Orthodoxy and I think we could have continued down the path of mere scholarship for quite a long time, but several different people gave us the advice to jump right in by attending Liturgy. Divine Liturgy is meant to be experienced, and we were going to miss the main event if we only focused on scholarly pursuits.

I became determined to visit. David also wanted to visit but he was nervous – mostly afraid of the unknown of a new situation or of making a faux pas. We decided to attend a nearby parish that a friend had visited before. As we pulled into the parking lot, we were a bit nervous. As we made the decision to get out of the car, we were still nervous. As we stood inside the building but just outside the temple, we were really nervous! We had read Frederica’s 12 Things I Wish I’d Known and it was extremely helpful but we still weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We stood in the narthex for a minute or two, undoubtedly looking completely bewildered. A nice lady saw us and before we knew it we were inside the temple and observing our first Liturgy.

The next week we decided to try a different parish (OCA). We’ve been going back ever since.

If you are looking into Orthodoxy, you really must attend Liturgy. The Orthodox Church is so amazingly rich and you are doing yourself a disservice by not attending Divine Liturgy. If you are nervous like we were – don’t be! You can duck into the back of the temple and stand to the side and be completely anonymous if you would like. Just soak it all in. The next time you visit, you might want to look around and see if there is a copy of the printed version of the Liturgy. It is immensely helpful to be able to read along – so much is happening during Liturgy, it is easy to miss some of the words.

After our first Liturgy, David commented that it was almost hard to believe that this was the same religion that we had grown up in. Divine Liturgy was so different from anything that we had experienced. As the weeks and months pass by, we continue to be drawn to Orthodoxy both in scholarship and in practice. If you have not yet attended Liturgy, please consider doing so soon!

A fellow convert recently asked us this question. It took me by surprise. No, we did not come anywhere near the consideration of Roman Catholicism. There’s a multitude of reasons why it was never even on our radar:

  • Both of us have fathers who were raised RC and subsequently left the church to become Protestant
  • My interactions with my staunchly RC grandparents were always less than stellar
  • The Papacy always seemed like a fraud (though admittedly – I grew up in a biased environment)
  • We both knew enough about the Protestant Reformation to know that there were many problems within the RC church – too many problems for us to take it too seriously
  • Personally I have never known any serious Catholics other than my grandparents – and note comment above
  • I was told that Catholics worship Mary and that always seemed strange

Looking back on what I thought about Catholicism even just six months ago, I see a major shift in my views. I can now share much more meaningful reasons for why I would not consider Roman Catholicism:

  • Again, the Papacy – but I now know more about the history of this issue. I see a grossly misplaced concentration on the Bishop of Rome.
  • The filioque.
  • The doctrine of transubstantiation, and other similar rationalistic approaches to what is mystical.
  • The doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary.
  • Clergy who are not allowed to marry… and too many cases of abuse that seem somehow related to this rule.
  • Much too much change within the church
  • Too many varying interpretations within the church (on the last two points, my husband recently pointed out that you wouldn’t expect this given that the RC church is under centralized leadership. The Orthodox on the other hand have a leadership that is comparably more decentralized and do not experience this same problem within the church).

At the same time, there are some things that RC and Orthodox Christians have in common. Unfortunately this is very confusing to your average Protestant who doesn’t know much about Orthodoxy. Commonalities include:

  • Belief in the presence of Christ in the Eucharist (though Orthodox Christians don’t try to explain how this happens – it is simply accept it as mystery)
  • Crossing oneself (though in a slightly different way than RCs)
  • Venerating Saints
  • Praying to Saints (no different really than asking a fellow Christian to pray for you)
  • Asceticism, incense, monasticism, observance of the liturgical calendar

Some of these things may be of great concern to my Protestant friends. Before investigating Orthodoxy I also thought that these things were “too Catholic” so I understand any concerns. Please stick around, I will explore these in greater depth at some point.

First Forgiveness Sunday

February 15, 2010

“If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses…” (Mark 6:14-15)

I am happy to report that we were able to attend the forgiveness Vespers this afternoon. I was nervous that our toddler would not be able to hold out for that long as he usually breaks down towards the end of coffee hour. Fortunately he had a brief nap on the way to church this morning and this ensured that we were able to stay for the Vespers immediately following lunch.

We weren’t entirely sure what to expect. We haven’t been to a Vespers service before, so I am not sure how this compared (an abbreviated version perhaps? It didn’t seem to last long). There were several prostrations during the service and I looked at my husband and said “are we going to do this or what?” I remember thinking that starting to cross ourselves was a big deal, but now it is beginning to feel normal. Prostrations are a much bigger deal – so, so far from our conservative Protestant upbringing.

(Sidenote: as a child I remember seeing a picture of my Roman Catholic grandfather lying prostrate as part of some service – perhaps when he became a deacon in the church. I found it very, very strange and felt a great sense of unease when I saw the picture. The prostration seemed so – I don’t know – demeaning? I also felt like I had seen something that I shouldn’t have.)

My husband shrugged in reply to my question. We stood through one more prostration and then we started to get into the flow of it. I don’t know what I expected it to feel like, but I was surprised to find that it actually felt liberating. Is there really a more intense form of worship than prostrating oneself? Nothing is coming to mind. I found the experience amazing.

(Sidenote 2: my little son started getting into it after he saw us doing it. So sweet!)

From there we moved on to asking forgiveness of our fellow parishioners. Again, at first we weren’t sure about the right way to do this, but we quickly got it. It was really neat and I really appreciate this opportunity to connect individually with everyone – even people I had not met before. It was moving in that regard. Unfortunately I was pretty focused on 1) following the protocol* and 2) caring for my son whilst doing so. I expect that it will be an even greater experience next year when I 1) know what I am doing and 2) know more people in the church.

*Curious about the protocol? The archpriest begins by kneeling as he faces the parishioners. The next priest goes to him and they cross themselves and then ask forgiveness of each other: “Forgive me for any way that I have offended you” and they then bow to one another. The bows vary depending on one’s level of comfort – some people are down on their knees, head bowed and others may bow more slightly. They then stand up and hug/kiss and say “God forgives.” Priest #2 now stands next to Priest #1 and the next person then asks forgiveness of Priest #1. So it continues down the line, until everyone has asked forgiveness of everyone else.

Long story short, I was really moved today. This was such a cool experience. And oh yeah – both David and I are really sore!

Parent’s Prayer

February 12, 2010

“O Heavenly Father, make me a better parent. Teach me to understand my children, to listen patiently to what they have to say, and to answer all their questions kindly. Keep me from interrupting them or contradicting them. Make me as courteous to them as I would have them be to me. Forbid that I should ever laugh at their mistakes, or resort to shame or ridicule when they displease me. May I never punish them for my own selfish satisfaction or to show my power. Let me not tempt my child to lie or steal. And guide me hour by hour that I may demonstrate by all I say and do that honesty produces happiness. Reduce, I pray, the meanness in me. And when I am out of sorts, help me, O Lord, to hold my tongue. May I ever be mindful that my children are children and I should not expect of them the judgment of adults. Let me not rob them of the opportunity to wait on themselves and to make decisions. Bless me with the bigness to grant them all their reasonable requests and the courage to deny them the privileges I know will do them harm. Make me fair and just and kind. And fit me, O Lord, to be loved and respected and imitated by my children. Amen”

Thanks so much to Molly @ Close to Home for sharing this wonderful prayer.

My First Lent

February 11, 2010

This year I will experience Lent for the first time. In my former life as a Protestant I knew that Lent was the period of time proceeding Easter. I had a friend who would give something up (usually a vice of some sort) during this time. Otherwise I was completely ignorant on the topic.

In Orthodoxy I am finding that Lent is a very big deal because it is a preparatory period leading up to Pascha (Easter). So now my ears are perked when I hear anyone mention something about Lent. Interestingly enough, Christianity Today just published several articles on this very topic:

Lent—Why Bother? To Lead Us to Christ

Lent—Why Bother? For Spiritual Exercise

Lent—Why Bother? To Take Up the Cross

Forgiveness Sunday

February 10, 2010

We have been warned about forgiveness Sunday that is coming up in a few days. Friends have said that it is a moving experience but also that it is physically taxing. If you’re scratching your head in confusion, here’s the explanation of forgiveness Sunday courtesy of Orthodox Wiki:

Significance of the day On this last Sunday before Great Lent, the last day that traditionally Orthodox Christians eat dairy products until Easter, the Church remembers the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise. God commanded them to fast from the fruit of a tree (Gen. 2:16), but they did not obey. In this way Adam and Eve and their descendants became heirs of death and corruption. On Forgiveness Sunday many attend Forgiveness Vespers on the eve of Great Lent. They hear on the Lord’s teaching about fasting and forgiveness and enter the season of the fast forgiving one another so that God will forgive them. If you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your heavenly Father forgive you your trespasses (Matthew 6:14). The Gospel reading of the day also gives advice on fasting. Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly. (Matthew 6:16-18).

The Rite of Forgiveness After the dismissal at Vespers, The priest stands beside the analogion, or before the ambon, and the faithful come up one by one and venerate the ikon, after which each makes a prostration before the priest, saying “Forgive me, a sinner.” The priest also makes a prostration before each “God forgives. Forgive me.” The person responds, “God forgives” and receives a blessing from the priest. Meanwhile the choir sings quietly the Irmoi of the Paschal Canon, or else the Paschal Stichera. After receiving the priests blessing, the faithful also ask forgiveness of each other.

As it was explained to us, the ceremony will begin with the archpriest asking for forgiveness. Each parishioner will proceed to ask forgiveness of every other parishioner. This involves kneeling in front of the person who you are asking to forgive you – see why this is taxing? You can also see why it is a moving experience. You are humbling yourself in front of every other person in the church; some people may be your friends, some you may not know, some you may not like. Forgiveness Sunday is another example of how the Orthodox Christian experience permeates one’s life; there is no lone ranger Christianity here. 

It is serious stuff to kneel in front of someone and ask their forgiveness – have you ever done this before? I sure haven’t, though there are plenty of times when I probably should have. It is even more serious to do this in the temple and as part of one’s preparation for Lent.

I am looking forward to this experience on Sunday – though I am not sure to what extent due to the fact that I have a toddler who will require a nap right about the same time I am supposed to be asking for forgiveness. (That’s a post for a later date – “The Orthodox experience with small children afoot”.)