Last week, my sister had the second of three operations as part of the course for her cancer treatment. Her post op exam of the tissue revealed all is well. God is so good! My thanks and praise seem so inadequate because my heart is so full of awe and gratitude. I want to gather every white flower in the city and bring it into the temple as tribute and thanks.
It has almost been a year since I came to investigate the Orthodox Christian church. I began my journey in September 2016 LINK.
My first blog post was not very wordy. In fact, it was a repost of a photo I had found talking about keeping a monastery in one’s heart.
The Dormition of Mary ends the Liturgical year for the Orthodox Christians. I have been a part of something amazing and I will remember this first year as being filled with struggles, the making of new friends, sorrows when a dear family member was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, answers to prayer, family coming to check out what I was up to and now one is to be baptized this Saturday. My nephew and husband both have visited my temple. My husband is still attending on Saturdays. I get to spend a lot of time with my sister talking about the Orthodox Way. She and I attend services together regularly. It is SUCH a huge blessing to be able to discuss what is going on with someone who is also experiencing Orthodoxy for the first time and loving it.
It has, and continues to be a struggle. It is a good struggle. Orthodoxy aligns with what is in the bible in regards to guarding ourselves against sin. It is what I have been looking for for the past 30 years. Yes… 30 years!
I became Orthodox so that I could be changed and I have been. I have removed from my blog two earlier posts written when I was still a Protestant. They no longer represent who I am or what I believe. Do you go to church hoping to change, ‘the establishment’? Or do you attend church, read your bible and pray hoping your heart will soften and you will be changed?
I still have a long way to go in my journey as a Christian. One thing I now realize is why people used to post on social media how thankful they were to have another day on earth. In the Orthodox Church, it is so that we can have another day to work on our sanctification.
I love when we sing, ‘Many Years’ in church!
I have learned about the Ethiopian Orthodox Christians!
I learned that cave churches were not just holes in the mountain. They were, and still are beautiful and full of icons and murals.
I have learned that there is such a thing as Holy Fire and it is a bona fide miracle that happens EVERY Pascha!
I learned that Easter baskets originated with the Orthodox Church but we call them Pascha baskets.
I have learned about fasting…
I have learned about icons… SO many beautiful icons!
I have learned about he prayer rope, the Jesus prayer, the blessing of the waters, confession & repentance, the lives of the ancient fathers and mothers, and so much more.
As much as I have learned, I still have so much more to understand.
According to ancient tradition, the wonderworking icon of Tikhvin is one of several painted by Saint Luke the Evangelist. The icon was taken from Jerusalem to Constantinople in the fifth century, where it was enshrined in the Church of Blachernae, which was built especially for this purpose.
In 1383, seventy years before the fall of Constantinople at the hands of the (Muslims) Turks, fishermen on Lake Ladoga in the principality of Novgorod the Great witnessed the icon miraculously hovering over the lake’s waters amid a radiant light. According to an early sixteenth century Russian manuscript, “The Tale of Miracles of the Icon of the Tikhvin Mother of God,” the Theotokos herself decided that her image should leave Constantinople, perhaps in anticipation of the impending fall of the Byzantine Empire.
Shortly after its miraculous appearance, the icon was discovered in several neighboring towns, including the village of Motchenitsy on the bank of the Tikhvinka River, before it finally appeared near the town of Tikhvin. A wooden church dedicated to the Dormition of the Theotokos was built on the site of the icon’s final resting place. Miraculously, the icon survived a number of fires.
In the early sixteenth century, through the zeal of Great Prince Basil Ivanovich, a stone church was built to replace the original wooden structure. In 1560, by order of Tsar Ivan the Terrible, a men’s monastery was established near the church and enclosed with a stone wall.
In 1613-1614, the Swedish army, having seized Novgorod, made several attempts to destroy the monastery. The countless prayers offered to the Theotokos before the icon were heard, and the monastery was spared. On one occasion, after monks had been alerted to the approaching Swedish army, they decided to flee and to take the icon with them. But the monks soon discovered that they could not remove the icon from its shrine. Seeing this as a sign of the Theotokos’ protection, the monks decided not to abandon the monastery, begging the Theotokos to spare them and their beloved spiritual home. To their amazement, a large Muscovite army appeared to defend the monastery.
When the Swedes encountered the army, they retreated immediately. Word of this miracle spread rapidly, and imperial emissaries soon visited the monastery. Accompanied by a copy of the wonderworking icon, they set off for the village of Stolbovo, 33 miles from Tikhvin, where they concluded a peace treaty with the Swedes on February 10, 1617. Afterwards, the copy of the icon was taken to Moscow and enshrined in the Kremlin’s Dormition Cathedral. Later, the same icon was placed in the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) cathedral in Novgorod at the request of the city’s faithful, who also found themselves under attack by the Swedes. Once again, through the intercession of the Theotokos, the city was spared.
Over the centuries, the icon’s fame spread far and wide. Copies of the wonderworking icon began to adorn churches throughout the land. Some of these copies also proved to be sources of miracles, and it was not uncommon to find the faithful praying before the icon to seek healing for children who were ill.
No fewer than 24 processions with the icon were celebrated each year at the Tikhvin Monastery, where the icon was enshrined. A decorative cover, or “riza,” adorned the icon, exposing only the faces and hands of the Holy Virgin and Christ child. Numerous precious stones studded the riza, and many of the faithful, desiring to express thanksgiving for prayers answered through the Theotokos’ intercession, affixed precious jewelry to the riza.
Most miraculous is the fact that the icon was preserved from destruction or sale after the Russian Revolution, which ushered in a 74-year persecution of the Church. During the 1920s, the communist government demanded that the Russian Orthodox Church turn over countless icons and other precious liturgical items, which through the nationalization of private property were considered the property of “the people.” Many of these sacred items were sold, allegedly to raise money to feed the Russian and Ukrainian population which was afflicted by famine.
During the World War II German occupation, the Nazis removed the icon from the Tikhvin Monastery, from where it was taken to Pskov and subsequently to Riga, Latvia. When the city was evacuated, Bishop John [Garklavs] of Riga, in whose care the icon was placed, took the icon to Bavaria, where it was venerated by Orthodox faithful who had been displaced because of the war. While Soviet agents had spotted the icon, Bishop John was permitted to take the icon to the United States in 1949, under the pretext that the icon in his care was a reproduction, the work of a simple monk, and that it was of little historic or monetary value. Shortly after his arrival in the United States, Bishop John, who was later elevated to the rank of Archbishop, was elected to oversee the Diocese of Chicago, and the icon was regularly displayed and venerated in Chicago’s Holy Trinity Cathedral.
Bishop John frequently took the icon on pilgrimage to various places throughout the United States and Canada. After his retirement in the late 1970s and death on Palm Sunday in 1982, Archpriest Sergei Garklavs, Bishop John’s adopted son, became the caretaker of the icon. In 2003, over a decade after the fall of communism and the resurrection of the Russian Orthodox Church, the decision was made to return the precious icon to its original home.
The icon began its year-long journey to Russia at the 99th annual Pilgrimage to Saint Tikhon Monastery, South Canaan, Pennsylvania, May 23-26, 2003. His Beatitude, Metropolitan Herman, Primate of the Orthodox Church in America, together with members of the Holy Synod of Bishops and guest hierarchs, greeted the icon, which was available for veneration by the faithful.
The icon follows the “Hodigitria” model and is similar in style to the ancient Iveron icon of Our Lady. It differs in that the Christ child’s legs are crossed, while the sole of His foot is turned to the viewer. Several historic sources note that several other Hodigitria icons of the Theotokos had been brought to Russia in the 1380s, during the rule of the saintly prince Demetrius Donskoy.
— Archpriest John Matusiak
In September, at the new year according to the Orthodox calendar, I started visiting my local Orthodox church. Exhausted by heretical teachings of churches whose pastors had never seen the inside of a seminary, pastors and congregants who embraced anything written as long as it contained the proper buzzwords, and fed up with, ‘movements’ I needed something more but I wasn’t sure what it was… until I found the Orthodox church.
What I found, what I did not realize I was looking for until it was in front of me, what is lacking in so many ‘modern’ churches, is dogma. I already believe in miracles. I’ve seen miracles, I’ve seen angels. Even witches believe in angels. What’s the dogma? Who does your church say Christ is? How does your church approach, Christ? How do they approach the worship of the Uncreated One? Do they even worship Him or do they entertain the flock then have a ‘rah-rah meeting’, also known as a sermon? After almost 50 years of sermons, I’m all sermoned out. I need to be at the feet of God worshiping Him, loving on Him and being loved back.
I believe that the best way for I, or anyone one else for that matter, who is interested in exploring the Orthodox church, is to do so wholeheartedly. Yes, it can be a bit daunting at first to enter an Orthodox Church and to see all the icons, candles, murals, to hear the chanting and watch the deacon cense the icons and people. it can be especially unsettling if the last church you attended before coming to an Orthodox Church was barely identifiable as a church. One, puny cross against a large, bare white wall (so that the announcements can be played while people find their seats no doubt) no more hymnals- who reads music anymore? No vestments. Nothing really to make it stand out from the other cubes/stores in the strip mall with which it shares space. Do I sound snobby? I don’t mean to, I’m just over the blending in that so many churches do so as not to offend. To be inclusive. However, we as Christians are not to be one with the world. We are to be one with God. Set apart and different with a purpose. Purposefully different. I no longer wish to worship in a space reminiscent of office space. I don’t want to pray in a white cubicle that looks worldly. I wish to pray in a space that looks ‘other worldly’. A space that looks like something God would occupy. A space that is grand and opulent. A space that prepares me for an eternity in the presence of God.
When I’m having a difficult time focusing in prayer, looking at a saint’s icon helps. The candles help. My beloved prayer rope helps. Keep your prayer closet. I need a prayer temple. Quiet… mostly. Reverent. A temple which engages all five sense in prayer, and worship of God our king.
One thing that I’ve noticed that I cannot do while in an Orthodox Church is, I cannot look at it through protestant eyes and understand the importance of the mystery set before me in the form of vespers or Div. Liturgy as being a mystery and letting it be a mystery.
It’s ok for us not to understand everything that is going on around us in a spiritual setting. Spiritual things are supposed to be mysterious. God is suppose to be mysterious. In my church travels through the years, I’ve noticed that many protestants believe that they have God all figured out. They do not seem to understand that the moment you think you have God figured out should be the moment you realize whatever it is you’ve been studying was not God or else you would not be able to understand Him. How can you understand His uncreatedness? His wonderment? His divinity? And it is HIS divinity not ours.
When walking into an Orthodox Church, one is to have the sense of leaving the world behind them, and walking east. East toward God, His divinity, and worship of this divine, uncreated Being in the most spectacular, colorful, and reverent way humanly possible. I, for one, am grateful it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a protestant. ‘In for a penny, in for a pound’ is my current motto. I am walking out my Orthodox Church experience one service at a time. One prayer at a time, and doing my best to experience it with child like wonder and not pick it apart through protestant intellect. That’s not to say that the Orthodox mind is a simple mind. Not at all! I’ve met many amazing and intelligent people at my church. What I am saying is that I’m not going to go into this experience thinking I know all the answers. I am a stranger in a strange land. Just as I would not go to France and expect everyone to be an American, nor have I come to this new-to-me church expecting everyone to change for me and sing all my favorite hymns, paint over the icons, and stop lighting candles. If I wanted a protestant experience, I would not be attending an Orthodox church. I came to this particular church to have this particular experience. To learn what they know. To look at God through the philosophical eyes of the writings of ancient fathers. To learn about tradition (a word scorned in many protestant churches), to learn about saints and martyrs. To hear new prayers. To see the bible written on a wall in the form of an icon or mural. To have this ‘thing’ called Christianity show respect for our Creator and not take important ideas such as an eternity in the presence of God so lightly as I have seen some churches, and many Christians do. If being a Christian is suppose to change us, why are so many of us still the same year after year? Why is it becoming a crime to point out the need for repentance, the need to stop sinning, the need to forgive?
If you have come to the Orthodox Church because you were looking for something different, then BE different! Participate as much as possible. Learn how to venerate an icon. Light a candle, say a prayer, cross yourself and bow down. Submerge yourself in the wonderment, traditions, and the divine mystery of the Orthodox Church. If you end up thinking that it is not for you, at least you can say that you gave it your best shot. If, however, you’ve been attending an Orthodox Church all the while refusing to fully participate, how can you know whether or not it was where you were supposed to be if you were never able to fully put aside your protestant fears and doubts?
How about the next service at your church whether it’s vespers or Div. Liturgy, you fully participate? How about lighting a candle, venerating an icon, or asking Mary to pray for you before the throne of God? You never know, maybe you’ll find out that this is where you were supposed to be all along but you didn’t know because you were holding back? Christmas is just around the corner. What a great time to get over yourself and enjoy some genuine wonderment.
Lord have mercy!
The last couple of weeks have been rough. A dear family member was diagnosed with stage 3 cancer. I have had strep throat. My husband does not like it that I’m going to an Orthodox Church but praise God, he has not asked me to stop going. On the way to church last night for vespers, I prayed and asked God to give me a sign if I was supposed to stop attending this church. I was so excited to get there as it had been two Wednesdays since I had walked through those blessed doors. I picked up some candles in the narthex. a big red glass candle for the person with cancer, a small beeswax taper for myself, and hubby. Approaching the icons and lighting the candles, I start crying. Softly at first then, by the time I reach the large icon of Mary to the left of the holy doors, I’m sobbing. If she had been in physical form, I would have collapsed in her arms. What a blessing it was to be in the presence of such good friends. The love, the comfort, the peace. I make it to the back of the sanctuary and collapse into one of the tiny chairs that line the wall. I fumble in my purse for an unused tissue. A lady I had said, ‘hello’ to in the parking lot ambles up to me (she must use a cane to walk) and hands to me several tissues she had clutched in her hand. She asks me if I need anything, ‘prayer’ I say. While we talk, the parish priest, Fr. Anthony comes up to us. He squats down in front of me. ‘Melissa?’ he asks to confirm my name. I’m new there and we have spoken a bit over emails and in passing but there are over 200 people at this church. ‘Yes.’ I reply. ‘Did you still want to be a catecumen?’ he asks. (I had mentioned it to him in an email that I had wanted to make it official, then I came down with strep so it had not yet happened.) ‘Yes!’ I confirm with enthusiasm. In my mind I’m thinking; Yes, I want to be part of this church. Yes, I want to make it official! Yes, I want to, I want to, I want to!
Last night, standing at the back of my church, I officially became a catecumen.
So, it’s official. I’m walking that path facing East. What an interesting answer to prayer. Lord have mercy.
Yesterday was a particularly difficult day. I was trying to decide if I should continue to attend my local Orthodox Church. I asked God for a sign to let me know that what I was doing was ok. He sent to me a beautiful, comforting dream. I dreamt that I was participating in a Divine Liturgy celebrating Mary. Everything was covered in gold. In the in between spaces of the icons painted on the walls there was gold leaf. Everything that you would normally see as bare wood in a church was covered in gold. It was almost blinding. It was beautiful, warm, inviting and comforting. I’ve decided to continue to go to church.
(Update: I am to be baptized on Pentecost!)
Lord have mercy.