Music on Monday – Hildur Guðnadóttir – Vichnaya Pamyat

Hildur Guðnadóttir/Chernobyl miniseries OST – “Vichnaya Pamyat”

A haunting piece for the end of the Chernobyl miniseries. Considering that for the Orthodox, the phrase “Memory Eternal” has so many deep religious connotations, I was actually surprised that HBO and Sky Television allowed the phrase “Vichnaya Pamyat” at all, much less as the title for the fifth (and final) episode.

I did notice, however, that this composition only consists of the words “Vichnaya Pamyat”, and contains nothing more of what is chanted in a memorial service or what normally follows with “Memory Eternal” in church. One could say that this is an attempt to eradicate religion from the picture, but I find it to be very fitting for something set in the USSR in 1986. At this point in time, the Soviet authorities thought that there shouldn’t be any religious left in the Soviet Union, since all the grannies of 1917 were now dead, and beginning in the early 1980s, there was a renewed persecution of believers. Yet, in deepest sorrow, there still is a longing to lean upon the Divine, and a piece like this – while not specifically religious – still manages to elicit a similar feeling to its religious counterparts.

(Interestingly enough, St. Elias Church was the only church in the “exclusion zone” and miraculously always measured “clean” from radiation – even in the worst days of 1986.)

This piece was recorded by the Homin Lviv Municipal Choir, which makes me wonder if this is the reason that this seems to be the only time there’s a “hat tip” to the Ukrainian language (L’viv being in the far western part of Ukraine, where there’s much more of a revival of Ukrainian.) Of course, this being 1986, it’s absolutely correct that everything would have been done in Russian; up until that point, in most of Ukraine, the goal was to “Russify” things as much as possible.

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The Attraction of Orthodox Christianity behind the Zion Curtain

Apparently, the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America has recently purchased a 5.5 acre plot of land in Salt Lake City to build a church, establish a cemetery, and eventually construct a Cathedral.

Salt Lake City, of course, is the center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and the Mormon culture not only pervades Salt Lake City and the state of Utah, but large swaths of the western United States.

It’s not that most of Mormon culture is bad; in fact, there’s a lot that is worth emulating. The big drawback, though, is that their theology is hardly “mainstream” Christian, what with the writings of Joseph Smith and the like being considered part of canon, but at a time when a lot of “mainstream” Protestant churches seem to be straying further and further away from sound doctrine, in my experience, at least, the Mormons are putting more emphasis on Jesus and less on Joseph Smith. (I’d even wager that their new emphasis on being the “Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints” – ChurchofJesusChrist.org – is part of this.)

Looking at the Mormon Church from the outside, it seems like things are great, but it seems like they are not exempt from the challenges of retention, particularly among young people.

Of course, not all of these people leaving are coming to Orthodoxy, but a few of them are. Saints Peter and Paul Orthodox Church, the parish with plans to build the church and cathedral, has had enough growth that the new construction has become necessary.

In my own opinion, I believe that the Orthodox Church has a unique advantage in speaking to Mormons, particularly because of the way the Orthodox speak about theosis. I’m not saying that the Orthodox idea of theosis and Mormon deification (or exaltation) are anywhere near the same thing. However, the fact that the Mormon perspective acknowledges that there is an element of continuing ‘ascetic struggle’ to salvation is something that a lot of Western Christendom has seemingly lost. Faith is what saves us, yes, but that faith needs to transform one’s life, to shape one’s thoughts, to guide one’s actions. Part of this is why Mormons do have a unique community and culture.

When all one needs to do is “say the word” to accept Jesus into one’s heart, there’s a lot more leeway to not actually let one’s “faith” affect the rest of one’s life. When the idea is that no matter what we do, we are totally depraved, it logically quashes the motivation to try harder, to let oneself be transfigured, because in the end, what’s the difference? No, it’s not by works alone that we are “saved”, but a philosophy that relegates them to lower importance makes for a much different perspective of the role of religion in one’s life.

In the end, even with my respect and affection for the Mormons I’ve encountered, the theology issues made it impossible for me to convert to the LDS Church. I found it astounding, before I had found Orthodoxy, being an a Mormon home, surrounded by the family’s hospitality, having the mother of the family tell me, “You need a church. Even if it doesn’t end up being ours, you need a church.” Heretical, maybe. But I found it remarkable because it was obvious that their faith and their actions stemmed from belief in Jesus more than anything else.

In an age where, if one is truly seeking answers, it’s easier than ever find them (even if one needs a whole lot of discernment to understand what is true and what is not). In some sense, I think that makes it harder for the theology of Joseph Smith et al to stand. There are just so many inconsistencies in what he taught. I think this is a HUGE hindrance to the Latter Day Saints, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s causing a number of very sincere, dedicated Mormons to question and/or leave the church. One would hope though, that, rather than just abandoning religion, those seeking Truth will find it.

(For anyone interested in donating to the building project in Salt Lake City, their building project page can be found here: https://saintspeterpaulchurchcapitalcampaign.org/ )

Orthodoxy in Western Europe – Nativity of the Mother of God Convent, Asten, the Netherlands

This week, one of the local Orthodox churches hosted a small presentation from Gerontissa (Abbess) Johanna of the Nativity of the Mother of God Convent, located near the town of Asten, in the southeastern part of the Netherlands.

Gerontissa Johanna speaking about her convent in the Netherlands

She told the story of Mother Maria, the founder of the monastery, who was a native Dutch woman who came to Orthodoxy as a teen, soon afterward following the path of a monastic. First she stayed in the Netherlands, then moved to Serbia, where she was acquainted with St. Justin Popović , but due to restrictions on the Church there at that time, and the restrictions on her as a foreigner, she went to Greece and spent more than a decade there. Later, she was encouraged to go back to the Netherlands to start a monastery there, and the result was, in 1989, the founding of this monastery in Asten. For a much more detailed story, please see the following link: http://orthochristian.com/7381.html.

In any case, although Mother Maria died in 2016, the work of the convent still continues. Abbess Johanna related to us some of the stories of the convent, and all the work that has been going on to renovate the premises. She also talked a bit about what it’s like to be a nun in a very secular society, but also a little bit about the people who stop by, and a number of blessings and miracles they have been the recipients of.

As the program switched to a question and answer session, Abbess Johanna was asked a little bit about her own life, which turned out to be a fascinating story in itself. She was born in central New York state, grew up in a traditionally Catholic family, but was still quite young when the changes of Vatican II came about. These changes rattled her faith, to some degree, but at least to the point of pretty much leaving the Roman Catholic Church. Eventually, she came to be part of a group that “found” Orthodoxy, though not all the members made that conversion. When asked why she became a nun, quite seriously she said, “I don’t know.” However, she had a knack of infusing an almost deadpan humor into the way she would tell the stories, and at this point, the room broke out into a little giggle. She continued, though, that she has no idea why she became a nun, but that she couldn’t have imagined doing anything else with her life.

She talked a little bit about their routine. There are four nuns there now. In general, matins begin between 5-5:30 am. They have Divine Liturgy about three times per week, though it usually begins somewhat later than matins because the priest has to come from another town. She stressed that the first job in the monastery is prayer, and that it is through prayer that we have a connection to God. Especially considering how secular a lot of places in this world have become, and how lost a lot of people are, she finds it all the more important to do the work to bring prayer into this world and help forge that connection.

She went on to talk about everyday life outside of services, how, in one sense, it’s fairly normal – cooking, cleaning, shopping, doing the things like candle-making that bring the convent in some money, receiving visitors, what have you. She said that in the monastery, all work is blessed by the Abbot or Abbess, and although one could think that this is merely a way to create mindlessness for most of the monks or nuns, that actually, one finds a freedom in obedience.

Gerontissa Johanna explaining some of the renovations being done.

A couple of other things she spoke about were things like giving one’s heart and soul to Orthodoxy, as it is the religion of love. She mentioned that she believes that God gives every one of us something unique to do, but that we really need to pay attention to figure out what that is because most of what we get tasked to do in the everyday is mundane and boring. She also joked a little about how God seemed to completely ignore a lot of her personal “nevers”. (I’ll never do this, I’ll never do that…)

She finished by affirming that eventually, at the right time, we get what we need, and that no matter what circumstances we may find ourselves in, gratitude is important, and that everyone has something to be grateful for.

In any case, if any of you are interested in keeping up a little more with the convent, a Facebook group has been started, though you’ll need to submit a request to the admin to be in it.

As an aside, here’s a link to an article about Mother Maria fighting the Dutch government over chickens: https://incommunion.org/2006/02/19/an-abbess-who-said-no/

Fighting the fraternity

Most of us human beings depend on the ties that bind to be able to make the most of this life. The first and most important of these is family. Family ought to be the place where most of us feel safe and protected.

Outside of family, then there are things like Church, which ought to be like a second family, and then we have other ties, other loyalties which are usually a little less stable – jobs, recreational clubs – and, in this day in age, online social media.

I have noticed, as a female, that it is important not just for little boys to see men being men, but that it is important for most men to have time to be around and relate to other men without the presence (or with the minimal presence) of women.

Once upon a time, work was almost always one of those places. However, there are a few high-stress, high-emotion jobs which are still predominantly or exclusively male where there is a strong sense of fraternity. This, in itself, is not a bad thing; for instance, it’s hard for most of us to imagine being attacked in combat, constantly encountering the worst in humanity as a big-city police officer, or carrying the spiritual load of a good pastor or priest.

In these professions, these callings, it’s natural that strong fraternities would develop, and it’s one of the ways that people these people learn to handle life. These groups present themselves as being composed of people being held to a “higher standard”, and for that reason, the public generally allows members in these groups a little more leeway when it comes to matters of benefit of the doubt and such things. After all, these people have dedicated their lives to direct service to others.

The problem arises, then, when that fraternity, rather than actually holding their members to the higher standard to which they purport, actually use it to cover up bad behavior. I’m sure that no member of the Minneapolis Police Department would want to believe that one of their members would recklessly kill an unarmed woman, but being held to that “higher standard”, it’s a scandal when it seems they acted to try to cover it up.

A lot of that same sort of attitude has pervaded the Roman Catholic Church, that even if priests do behave badly, their fellow priests and the hierarchy of bishops and cardinals are encouraged to ignore the victims. Eventually, when this sort of rot is allowed to grow, anyone within the fraternity who tries to speak out against it is forced out.

However, one doesn’t have to have a felony-level story to see this even in the Orthodox Church (though there have been numerous incidents, mainly involving money, within the Orthodox Church here in the US – Fr. Dokos of Milwaukee, for example, or the theft of donations by the OCA hierarchy, etc.) For example, here, a new priest was recently installed at one of the local churches. The church in question is over 100 years old, and has a weekly attendance between, say, 50 and 80.

The new priest, clearly, should not be the leader of a parish. I’ve seen myself that he seems to be very confused about what he’s doing up in the altar, even during Sunday liturgies, and that even with all the liturgical books, he still makes noticeable mistakes. When it comes to special services, things fall apart even more. I’m close to a number of people from the parish, and I heard that he had completed the service on Great and Holy Thursday – with the twelve Gospel readings – in less than three hours (I heard he cut out all the antiphons.) He cancelled Royal Hours completely, and during the Paschal service (which, based on the times the members started sending “Christ is Risen” on Facebook had to have been at breakneck speed, he left the winding sheet – which is brought to the altar when everyone goes out for the procession – in the middle of the church for the entire service, DESPITE THE FACT THAT EVERY LITURGICAL BOOK SPECIFICALLY SAYS WHAT TO DO AT THIS POINT!

There are also smaller things – at one vespers service, he told a woman to go behind the iconostasis to retrieve something. His handling of Communion is downright bizarre, prompting someone to ask my husband if the priest perhaps had a spoon fetish, because while giving Communion to the congregation, the Communion spoon went back into his mouth over and over. Ostensibly, this could be to remove any extra remnants of the Body and Blood from the spoon, but nobody I know – even cradle Orthodox – have ever seen anything so weird at Communion before.

As bad as his knowledge of services and Orthodox practice seems to be, a lot of that could be forgivable if it weren’t for the fact that his personality goes way beyond “odd”. Meeting people, as with when he met me, he seems completely awkward. That in itself isn’t the rub, there are plenty of people out there who are awkward and shy in social situations. However, even with most shy people, if you say “hello” to them one-on-one, you get a sense of warmth. With him, this isn’t the case. It’s more of a “deer in the headlights” type reaction. Starting a service, as I have witnessed myself, he seems to start with that, progress to overwhelmed and frustrated, and progress to so angry he’s about to blow up. Unfortunately, the choir director – a woman temporarily filling in – seems to generally be at the brunt of his anger. He treats her with the utmost contempt, seeming to blame all his mistakes on her, being generally rude with wild gestures and hand motions and, if he doesn’t like what she’s doing, ordering the subdeacon to sing on top of her – from the altar! This sort of behavior is not indicative of someone who is incredibly stable – a must for a priest!

Furthermore, it’s terribly sad when multiple friends who did go to the Paschal service there reported back that there was “drama” and that he snapped at her during the service. (But it wasn’t the first time he’d snapped at her that week, I’d heard!) I seriously wonder, how can a priest not be at peace by the end of the Liturgy?

Not only this, but there was an incident nearly three weeks ago, where a male member of the parish council allegedly followed a woman congregant with a small child from the church into another building on the church’s property to yell at her in a small and dark hallway. She reported it that night to the priest, and he has yet to respond to her email. She feels so unsafe that she and her family haven’t been back – even for Holy Week or Pascha.

I know that in this case, the dean and Bishop +Paul (Gassios) were contacted several times, but their responses (which I have seen) indicate that they don’t take the situation seriously, nor that they consider this a pressing matter. (Though responding to this blog apparently is!) Rumors around speculate that Bishop +Paul is using this priest to try to get the parish closed – after all, the land the church is on is worth a good bit, perhaps even as much as $1,000,000!

Unfortunately, this priest’s actions – and the inaction of his “fraternity” – have already done a lot of harm to the parish in the small amount of time that he has been there. I know of a significant percentage – somewhere in the ballpark of 25% – who have already had enough and have a foot and a half out the door. At this point, if somebody took this situation seriously – the dean, the Bishop, the Metropolitain – and took some real leadership here, admits that there are serious concerns, and works to fix them, these people might be convinced to come back. The longer nothing is done, though, the more remote that possibility becomes. For some of us, Church is important enough that they will do what they have to to keep going, despite all these issues. Some of them will even attempt to fight the fraternity, not to destroy it, but for the honor of the whole, but it is wrong for the Church leadership to expect that every person serious about church, or Orthodoxy, is that tenacious. Fighting the fraternity is not something the average lay-person ought to have to do; however, if they want the faithful to believe that they actually do believe in the “higher standard”, they need to make sure that standard is adhered to amongst themselves.

Allowing for the sorrow… and anger

I was baptized into the Orthodox Christian Church back in 2002. I was fairly young, but I felt like I had done a lot of searching, a lot of praying, and the Orthodox Church was absolutely the place where I had to be.

This isn’t to say that the Orthodox Church is perfect. Anyone who takes more than the most superficial look at the administration is bound to feel really depressed about a lot of it. In the United States, it seems like every jurisdiction has been dealing with things that do rise up to the “scandal” level. Although the vast majority of it is administrative malfeasance, it leaves a lot of people wondering that if those involved cannot handle the administrative side of things, how can they handle the spiritual?

Nevertheless, I have never felt like there was any option to leave the Orthodox Church. Where would I go? The things that kept me from being Catholic are still there. I have an awful lot of devout Catholic friends, and I love and respect them a lot, but I can’t become Catholic. I can’t go back to the ruins of what was Protestant faith. I have the feeling as though though there is nothing there to go back to, like the majority of Protestant faith in this country is a burned-out shell, with only the tiniest remnant remaining to pick through. And yet, as the priest of our church said not all that long ago, something like half the people who convert to Orthodoxy in the US leave again.

In context, I suppose that’s kind of an ironic statement, seeing as now, that priest seems to have left Orthodoxy behind in his “faith journey”. It truly is a tough pill to swallow. On one hand, I have no question about his faith or that he’s truly seeking to do God’s Will in his life. On the other, there’s a sense of deep betrayal; that a mere weeks after he left the church where I attended, an announcement was put out that he’s left the Orthodox Church.

Sure, this is a secular society that stresses doing what “feels good” and what’s “best for you”. It’s a message that churches have a hard time countering; on one hand, one of the unique things about the Christian faith is the notion that each one of us is important as a unique individual, on the other, in the West, at least, I think the sense of Christianity as a greater community has largely been lost.

I feel right now like a child who was told that one parent was getting a separate apartment in order for that parent to be better able to sleep at night. It’s a confusing situation, but fine, we’ll do our best. Once the parent, then, has installed things at the new apartment, the parents turn around and say, “Well, actually, we’re getting a divorce.” Like a child who is powerless to change decisions that have already been made, I feel sad, I feel helpless, and I feel angry. I feel this was total deception. I am left wondering how long these plans were afoot. I wonder if, as the choir sang, “We have found the true faith” if there wasn’t some twinge of misgiving, some shame for the things we were not allowed then to know.

Worse yet, I feel like the congregation has been left in the hands of the allegorical 17-year-old big brother, who seriously doesn’t know what he’s doing, and is at very high risk of doing irreparable damage.

I know, I know, I’m not supposed to question any of this, just “roll with the punches”. “God’s in control” and “it’ll all work out in the end” are empty placations that come to mind. God doesn’t prevent one from falling when the rug is pulled out under him. Sure, I will get up, but things aren’t magically okay because this is a “good church” or “established church” or what have you. It may be terrible to say this, but I’m going to be angry about this, and I’m going to be angry about it for a good long while. I’m not going to let it consume me, but I think to deny it is even more dangerous. To everything, there is a season, I suppose…

Amid the ashes of despair, prayer taking wings as song

The morning reveals what has been destroyed and what remains in regard to the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. The Daily Mail, as is its custom, has lots of pictures. It was truly a devastating fire, and surely amazing that so much of the Cathedral remains. I wasn’t the only one to compare this fire to that at St. Sava in New York City; thankfully, it seems here that there was more left of the church once the fire was contained.

Churches are particularly vulnerable to fire, and, in many respects, the older the church is, the more vulnerable it may become. It seems as though some may have been cognizant of this, for it seems like a large amount of the treasures of Notre Dame may have been rescued. Reminiscent of the January 1966 fire that destroyed St. Michael Orthodox Cathedral in Sitka, it was a human chain to the burning Cathedral that apparently helped save many things. It may also be that since the Cathedral was under renovation, there were many things being housed elsewhere. As it is, many adornments, including statues nearly ten feet tall, which adorned the roof had been removed just last week. This was probably a miracle in itself, as had they still been on the roof, no doubt they would have come crashing down to earth in this inferno.

Still, one of the most haunting things about the scene last night was not the blaze rising up as it consumed this ancient cathedral, but rather with the crowds watching. Many reporters reported silence among the crowds until later, something peculiar happening.

Singing.

I did not immediately recognize the song, but it seemed to fit the moment perfectly, a chant, seemingly ancient, somber, but still holding on to hope. It is “Ave Maria“, in English, “Hail Mary”, in French, “Je vous salue Marie”.

” Je vous salue, Marie, comblée de grâce
Le Seigneur est avec vous …”

Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee..”


The song rose up as prayer, first with a couple solitary voices, and then with a hundred or more, a prayer, a dirge, a song most French people probably know, but, France being as secular as it is, one rarely heard in public. Yet all these people, witnessing the blaze at the Cathedral, not knowing if the morning would find it merely a heap of rubble, found their voices joining together, rising up to heaven, a counterpoint to the destruction being witnessed.

For as timeless and permanent as the Cathedral at Notre Dame may seem, as much as it is an icon of France, the French people, and the history of Christianity in Europe, as Christians, we understand that all this is temporal, that heaven and earth will pass away, and that our work here is not aimed at treasure in this life, but in the life to come. We will witness many things come to an end; we will witness destruction of those things considered impermeable, but we are not to despair, we are to hold on to our faith in the Everlasting One even tighter. If we can do this together, we’ve made getting through everything all the more bearable.

Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris is burning down

The images are terrible. Heartbreaking. Reminds me of the St. Sava fire in NYC in 2016. Just as St. Sava was gutted, I have little hope that when the flames are out, that there will be much standing.

St. Sava hopes to rebuild, though nearly three years later, I don’t know if they’ve been able to do much other than shore up the walls of the building, waiting for the day that they will be ready to rebuild. Of course, that is assuming that it will happen.

As for Notre Dame, if it does burn to the ground, I suppose it will be interesting to see if there is a will in France to rebuild it. It is known as an icon of France, boasting some 19 million visitors last year. Of course, as a church, its major function should be that of the spiritual, and I don’t know if the church has an actual congregation. (Then again, I don’t know much about France.)

It’s also Holy Week in the west. I could say a lot more, but I won’t.