My mother died last Sunday. On Christmas Eve. While I was at church.
I suppose I shall have to talk more of this. When I’m ready to do so. Not now.
I’d rather just change the subject, thank you.
And so, for the benefit of my three or four readers, I will instead expatiate on a subject near and dear to my heart: the Divine Liturgy.
I suppose I’ve been pondering on this for the last two score years, when, after being raised indifferently by my parents and my church in the faith, I became a nasty little atheist at the age of thirteen, and a not-so-virtuous pagan thereafter until I was twenty-four, when I accepted my Lord Christ in my heart, and sought for His Church in the world.
The day that I returned was what the West calls Maundy Thursday, and what the East calls Great and Holy Thursday. The couple that led me the rest of the way back to the faith invited me to their evening service, which commemorated the Last or Mystical Supper, when my Lord Christ founded the first service of the Divine Liturgy.
I suppose that that has affected me ever since. Both in my search for Christ’s Church, and in pondering over the true worship of that Church.
That search led me to return to the Roman Catholic church, which was the church of my youth. This was prompted because, after much study, I came to the conclusion that both that church and the Orthodox church comprised the center of the Church founded by my Lord Christ. And I decided that it was best to return to that part of Christ’s church in which I had been born and baptized.
Alas, between the time that I had renounced and apostatized from that church, some things had happened. The Second Vatican Council was one of them.
And, in point of fact, that Council was influential in occasioning my return to Roman Catholicism. In the course of my studies, I had read all the documents of that Council. And I was drawn to everything that was said in them. That the Church should engage with the world, in order to draw all toward Christ. That the Church should recognize that which is true in all religions, and to use that commonality in conversing with those religions. That there should be a reform in the education of the clergy, so that they might engage more effectively with the scientific, literary, and philosophical leadership of the world, and have better knowledge of those three fonts of the Holy Spirit: Scripture, Tradition, and Church Authority. And most important, that the Divine Liturgy should be reformed, so that it might more truly be ‘the summit of human existence’ and ‘a foretaste of the Kingdom of Heaven’.
So, I returned to the Roman Catholic Church. Stayed there for as long as I could, too.
But it seemed to me that few, if any, of its people or clergy had actually ‘gotten the memo’ that Vatican II offered. I felt the same way toward that Council that Mohandas Gandhi felt toward Western Civilization: both would be a good idea.
So, after seven years of experiencing the most painful and tedious liturgies to which humankind could be expected to endure (this was in the Archdiocese of LaLa Land, during the reign of His Eminence, Roger Cardinal Mahony), I happened to find a cassette tape of Russian Monastic Vespers, sung by the monks of Chevetogne. I was so taken by the beauty of that music that I taught myself German, just to read the liner notes, so that I could understand what was being prayed for and in that service.
And I found the most beautiful prayer and worship that I had ever experienced in my life. I prayed to God for a solid month that I might be led to a church that prayed like that.
And I was led, a bit more than thirty years ago, to St. Andrew Russian Catholic Church, on the very week that my pastor and spiritual father, Fr. Alexei Smith, was ordained to serve the Divine Liturgy there.
I’ve been there ever since. I’ve learned a few things since then.
One thing I’ve learned is that the culture wars mean very little in the long run. Yes, you can hold grievances about the stupid liturgy tricks that you have yourself experienced, or read about in The Wanderer or The Remnant, or that lot, or that you have heard about on ‘teh webz’ or have watched on YouTube.
But it does nothing to help to heal your soul of its ills. In fact, it does rather the opposite.
Another thing I’ve learned is that it does little good to continue religious feuds that have been going on for a long time. Like whether Latin is or is not a good thing to use in a mass. Or whether it is better to put thumb, forefinger, and middle finger together when making the Sign of the Cross. Or the direction in which you cross yourself. Or, finally, with whether you say or do not say that tricksy little ‘filioque’ in the Creed.
It matters a whole lot more whether you love God, and whether you love the lot who live right next to you, who are made in the image and likeness of that God. It matters if that love is expressed in loving God with your whole being, including your mind and your pocketbook, and whether that love is also expressed in helping and loving those around you. Even if they are not particularly lovable.
And, quite frankly, it also involves seeking God, by studying His two creations: the Universe, and His Scriptures. It involves trying to find His beauty and His wisdom, and expressing it in one’s lives, and in one’s worship.
If you try to do otherwise, you are likely to wind up with a golden calf, or with the sacrifice of Cain, who offered only what he wanted to offer, rather than what God had asked for. In both cases, the results would appear to be unsatisfactory.
For my part, I worship at a church where we believe that when the priest chants, “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”, and when we respond by saying, “Amen,” that Kingdom, for that short but vital time, is actually made manifest then and there.
And I have seen, heard, and felt myriad proofs of that Kingdom, in the thirty years I have worshiped at St. Andrews. Many others have told me the same thing.
It expresses itself to those others usually in this way: at the end of the Divine Liturgy, I and the three other members of our little choir descend the stair from the choir loft and receive our blessing from the priest or priests down there. Newcomers to our church will frequently exclaim: “But there are so few of you here! It sounded like there were many more of you upstairs!”
Those of us who have been there for much longer, particularly those who are or who have been in the choir, will just smile quietly and say, “Yes, you’re right. It does sound like there are more upstairs.”
But it is different upstairs. In part, it sounds like more are there because those of us in the choir get to hear all of the people downstairs singing along with us. You see, we have the rather odd idea at St. Andrews’ that the choir are the leaders of the people in prayer. Not their replacement. And the choir downstairs, for the most part, are really good at what they do.
In part, too, it is in the nature of what we are doing when our small choir sings. The four of us have each been singing for a long time, and have long been studying or living in the faith of our church. Our director is an alumnus of the New England Conservatory of Music, where his majors were piano and composition, and has had decades of experience in choral direction. Our only instrument is a tuning fork in middle C. And the nature of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy is that it is a solid hour and a half to two hours of singing forty or more connected pieces of music, and not, as in the West, an Ordinary of five settings, (Kyrie, Gloria, Credo, Sanctus, Agnus Dei) and Propers of five or six more.
I am told that those who have studied humans when they sing chorally have found that more of their brains are involved when they sing than at any other time. I have found that to be my experience as well. I have never felt so alive in my life, and seldom more fulfilled, than when I sing in the choir, attentive to the words and the music (which I have long since memorized), to my other choir members, to the director, to the voice of the priest (and occasionally, of the deacon, when one is present), and most importantly, to the meaning of the prayers which we sing.
But there is something more going on here. And I blush to mention it. But there are times, when I am most attentive to the words and music and meaning, when I begin to hear and to feel the presence of the others: those members of the choir who have fallen asleep in the Lord, who are no longer present in body, but who nonetheless sing with us. Frank Ryan, my first choir director there. My first wife, Carolyn. Her brother, Charlie. John Roshay. Roger Lund. Michael Cervanek. My second wife, Beth. And the many angels who sing with them as well. I think it is these, more than anyone else, that people are hearing when they think the choir to be so large.
And, on Christmas Day, I felt behind me, several times, the presence of someone who loved me, and who was very proud of me. I hope it may have been my mother.
And that hope is the only thing right now that is keeping me from despair.