Sunday, March 4, 2012

Orthodoxy and the Spiritual Journey

We're one week into Great Lent.

I have been Orthodox for nearly five years now, and this is only the second Great Lent in which I've been fully involved in the life of a parish. And it is the first Great Lent I've experienced in which I've participated in the entire liturgical year prior to its beginning.

Why did it take me so long?

I started asking that question after Forgiveness Vespers. This incredible service is held on Cheesefare Sunday, the day before Great Lent begins. During this service, each person in church that evening asks forgiveness of every other person in church. Individually. Out loud.

Imagine walking up to around 100 people, and before each of them, you touch the fingertips of your right hand to your forehead, and then bring your hand down, palm up, until those fingertips touch the floor. While you're doing this, you say to that person, "Please forgive me." As you do this, the person from whom you seek forgiveness performs the same action, and asks you to forgive them. Acceptable responses are "I forgive you" or "Christ forgives all" or "God forgives all". There is no need to hash out the details of the transgressions. We are doing what the Lord's Prayer demands of us: "And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." To feel the grace of forgiveness, we must extend that grace ourselves.

Acknowledging each person in the church that way, seeing their faces and saying to them that you recognize that you may have injured or slighted them, knowingly or unknowingly, is humbling.

Last year, I arrived too late to participate in Forgiveness Vespers. It was my first time visiting St. Paul's, and I got the time wrong. It might have been better that way. Witnessing this intense and beautiful ceremony with complete strangers would have been overwhelming to me.

So this was only the second time I'd participated in Forgiveness Vespers; I first participated in it just before my very first Lent. Why did I wait so long to do this again?

On Tuesday, I attended the Great Compline and Canon of Repentance by St Andrew of Crete. It is a hauntingly beautiful service, divided up into four shorter services during the first week of Lent (shortened, it was still 90 minutes long). During that service, we all made full prostrations while singing, "Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me" over 50 times. And I'd come in late.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

Among Orthodoxy's many mysteries is the way our faith is embodied in these kinds of services. We do not just sing of repentance, of the wastefulness of our lives, of our shame at pursuing material wealth when our brothers and sisters suffer. We sing of these things and then prostrate ourselves.

Not all of you are Orthodox, so let me go over this. A full prostration is where the worshipper, from a standing position, kneels on the floor, and then bends at the waist, resting his or her hands on the ground and then touching his or her forehead to the floor. Then, the worshipper stands back upright, completing the prostration.

You may have seen Muslims, Buddhists or Hindus do it. Most people don't associate this gesture with Christianity. Yet, Orthodox Christians have been doing it for a couple thousand years now.

In yoga, the position halfway through the prostration (forehead on floor) is a pose known as The Child. And that is truly how we should be before the Creator of all, before the most Loving Parent we could ever have, right? Humbled and deeply respectful, full of trust and wonder. In the same vein, the prostration is also a position most children adopt in the womb; in utero, we are all tucked into a ball, just like this, preparing to be born.

So we did this over 50 times. I started getting choked up sometime after 35, as I stood up and saw Fr James on his knees, reverently gazing upward. When he spoke next, his voice was rough the way it might be if he was trying to control his own emotion, and I almost burst into tears. I was glad I didn't have to speak out loud. I wouldn't have made it.

It was around this time that some things began to dislodge. I could feel it happening. I've long known that one of the benefits of dancing is that as the body gets moving, the things we store up in the body also get moving. Emotions and memories that we've suppressed or forgotten begin to awaken and come to the surface. Within any Orthodox service, all the senses are engaged: sight, smell, touch, taste, and hearing. Adding movement to this brings worship and ritual into our bodies; there are prostrations, half-prostrations, crossing oneself, hugging, and the veneration of icons, which involves a reverent kiss on the icon. Within this sacred context, the movements seem perfect to accompany reflections on repentance and humility, and in fact mirror such reflections.

The next night (Wednesday) was the Liturgy of the Pre-Sanctified Gifts, which means that the blessing of the Eucharist has happened the Sunday before. During Sunday Divine Liturgy, we don't normally prostrate because it's just too crowded. But during a Divine Liturgy that happens on another day, we usually have a little more space for this. As the Eucharist is blessed, we prostrate, remaining on the ground until the blessing is finished. During the Liturgy of Pre-Sanctified Gifts, however, we prostrate during what would normally be the Great Entrance. Instead of the Little Litany, the procession with the Holy Gifts around the inside of the church (the Nave) occurs in silence.

It's actually awe-inspiring. I lay on the floor, knees tucked underneath my body, arms encircling my head, and I began to feel different, as if a breeze had wafted down from Heaven, barely touching us, and inviting us in. My brain shut down, and my heart opened.

It felt like years before I stood up again. Wordless joy filled me... but also a sense that I'd been avoiding something, and the dreaded certainty that I was about to discover what that was.

All week I'd been feeling the urge to talk to a friend about Forgiveness Vespers. Although she is not Orthodox, nor even Christian, she has been extremely supportive of my journey with the Church. I simply wanted to share this with her, because I thought she'd appreciate the beauty of the ceremony. On Friday, she sent me a text message, communicating her sense of peace in her new home, a cabin in the woods, not unlike the one I live in. In the text, she asked me to forgive her for something.

In my response, I asked her forgiveness as well. I asked her to forgive me for leaving Santa Barbara. I admitted my own self-centeredness in that decision, and my inability to realize how much love surrounded me there.

It just came out. I hadn't thought about it until my fingers were typing it into my phone. But I knew that my departure from Santa Barbara really wounded Sunny. She'd told me as much. When she first told me that, I felt ... defensive. I wanted to defend my decision. I hadn't ever apologized. It was way past due.

It was also way past time for me to examine that decision. Evidently, at an until-recently-unconscious level, it had bothered me, causing my initial defensive reaction. I didn't want to have made a mistake in my decision to move to the Bay Area. I wanted to make it right in my mind.

So not only was I confronted with this giant three year mistake - a mistake that had its graces, mind you, in the form of good friends who kept me sane - but also with the arrogance that kept me from even recognizing it, from outright refusing to recognize the error. To top it off, I then had to realize that something in me had run away from all the love that surrounded me in Santa Barbara.

I've mentioned it before. I had a thriving dance community in Santa Barbara, an amazing parish, and loving friends. I was happy. Why would I leave that?

Because as happy as I was, I was also scared of that kind of love. More specifically, I think I was afraid I'd lose it somehow, that the love would run out, or that these people would discover something about me - I don't know what - that would make this suddenly end. I don't know why, but I felt somehow...unworthy.

So I ended it first. Pre-emptive strike.

I used to always ask myself how people could be afraid of love and happiness, and yet there I was, so terrified that I moved 350 miles away.

Now, for the first time since Santa Barbara, I have a parish with which I'm deeply involved. I love my job, and I'm also doing volunteer work in my parish that I've always dreamed about - working with youth in a spiritual context. I have great housemates and get to live in a cabin in the woods. I live 5 minutes away from what has become my second family, who also are members of this parish. I have a thriving gaming community, which is about the only thing I didn't have in Santa Barbara.

There are times when it isn't quite that idyllic - like when I don't have classes to teach for a month and a half - but really, it's pretty amazing.

As I looked over all the faces today during Divine Liturgy, I realized my challenge. My Lenten challenge is to have the courage to remain here, to let myself take root and grow in the love of these people, and in the love of God, who brought me back to peace and happiness in spite of myself.

Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me.

And this is after only one week of Lent. Five more weeks to go.


  1. Thank you Tanya for that, May I never leave SB out of fear of the Love shown to me.

  2. Forgive me, Obadiah. Thank you for the love you have shown, and still show me.