Recently my life seems full of grief. This is to be expected during Lent, a season characterized by “sorrowful joy.” My grief though, has its roots in a profound sense of loss: the ecclesial home that I have loved, still love, and will likely always love, is no longer my home. There is no time this loss is more acute for me than during Lent and Holy Week. I was raised by a choir director and so was steeped in the sounds of Orthodoxy. The sound and smells of Orthodox Lent, the mournful anticipation of Holy Week, is the music and ritual that I find the most moving. The weeks spent together through the beautiful pre-sanctified liturgies and shared lenten meals to the intensity of Holy Week with its multiple services a day, creates a sense of community that lasts well beyond its forty + seven days.
Today as I chanted the Lamentations (this link takes you to one of my favorite versions, sung by the Boston Byzantine Choir) standing before the Altar of Repose in a small Episcopal parish, my voice caught as I prayed the second stanza, “in your goodness make an end to discord in the Church, and crown her with peace.” By the end of the third stanza, it took me three tries, with a long pause as I wept, to complete “At your Resurrection grant peace to Your Church….”
I miss Orthodoxy. Sometimes, I miss it every day. At other times, I miss it only occasionally, when something reminds me of its particular beauty. For so long, I loved Orthodoxy and its theology. I wanted, more than anything, to be able to lead people into the joy I experienced through the richness of its often compassionate and loving theology, where participation in God through the beauty of the liturgy and the joy of learning to love together was central to our lives. In my moments of imagination I envisioned myself as a priest, joyfully entoning, “Blessed is the kingdom…” as the people of God entered into worship together.
Yet so often, Orthodoxy is not a place of peace. As my wife and I reflect on the things we miss this Lent, and the new ways of worshipping we are coming to appreciate and even love, we wonder if the intense participation during Lent and Holy Week was sometimes a product of fear and penitence, or yet another way of emphasizing the “us vs them” that permeates so much Orthodox rhetoric. We wonder, as we participate in sparsely attended Triduum services, days which in Orthodox churches are often quite full, if it is possible to inspire people to gather together without threat of punishment, or rules requiring attendance at a particular event or veneration, variations on which we have seen and experienced in various parishes. Mostly, we wonder if people gather together out of a perception that their gathering is a form of Orthodox resistance against encroaching secularism. We wonder if letting go of a the belief that we are doing it the “right” way necessarily means a parallel loss of commitment. We wonder if it is possible to have times of intense gathering as a reminder that God is everywhere and in all things rather than a reminder that we are different, or that we stand alone and often against a hostile world. We humans seem so much more willing to gather together in opposition to ‘them’ than we are willing to welcome ‘them’ into ‘us’ without condition or judgment.
For some of us, this constant tension rhetoric of ‘us’ and ‘them,’ especially as I clearly became a ‘them’ in the eyes of some of my sisters and brothers in Christ, makes our experience anything but peaceful. I regularly attended only one church where participation was not the result of compulsion or duty, but a joyful experience of worshipping and celebrating together. Where there was very little talk (at least from ‘up front’) about following the rules, and a great deal of talk about the gracious love of a God who welcomes all of us. Where all were welcome to participate according to their abilities, or at least, an attempt was made given the seemingly immovable boundaries mandated by certain elements of Orthodox theology (though always in the hope that no one ‘told on you’ on the internet, bringing the wrath of ‘traditionalists’, or the fear of their wrath, upon your head). All were welcome, as they were, without judgement, welcomed with joy and kindness. This was a church full more often than not, a church whose loss I still feel, years after having moved away. A church that embodies the the vision and practice of Orthodoxy that I so love, and so miss. I will always grieve that I will never be able to welcome people with the smells and sounds of a tradition that I find so achingly beautiful, in the same way this church welcomed so many.
As I prayed today, I grieved this loss. I grieve the lack of peace in a church that I love, the way it is torn apart by loud voices who scream exclusion, and by the complicit silence of its leaders. I am so sad to see the home I love torn by fear, reaction, anger, to see it digging in rather than opening wide its arms. And of course, I grieve that people like me can find at best a very limited and fragile peace within Orthodoxy, dependent upon the inclinations of a particular parish and priest.
Yet I also grieve the lack of peace between churches, the inability or unwillingness to see the work of God in one another. I know that the prayers I said today seek peace within Orthodoxy. But when I read them, I read them as a member of the Church, whose boundaries do not respect a single tradition or practice, but instead flow wild and free following the Spirit which blows where it wills. Knowing this, I cannot help but weep at our inability, our unwillingness, our fear which prevents us from seeing in the other the beautiful, unpredictable and uncontainable work of God.
In the midst of this grief though, I experience resurrection. I am reminded that God is present regardless of whether I worship in the appropriate Byzantine mode or plainsong or no song at all. Living and worshipping out of my comfort zone reminds me, sometimes viscerally and painfully, that all of these things, these rituals, these ways of worshipping over which we sometimes viciously fight, pale in comparison to the one whose presence they evoke, whose presence is all that actually matters, in whose presence all is restored. Someday.
At Your Resurrection grant peace to Your Church.