As I mentioned yesterday, I’ve been praying an Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children. I was unfamiliar with akathists until Fr. David talked about this one with me and we prayed it together. The original akathist, the Akathist Hymn to the Theotokos was composed by St. Roman the Melodist, in Constantinople, before his repose in 556. Akathist, from the word “akathistos”, literally means “not sitting” and it is normally prayed standing. Akathists are composed of alternating long and short stanzas. Each short stanza is called a kontakion and each long stanza is called an ikos. The format has become popular and many different akathists have been composed, including those to Christ, the cross, saints, and the one I mentioned to the Theotokos, nurturer of children.

The prayers in this akathist ask the Theotokos to raise our children. I was speaking with sockmonk about this hymn the other day. He expressed what I’ve also been feeling: that in praying this akathist he feels like he is building a relationship with the Theotokos.

This is wonderful set of prayers for those that have children or godchildren. I know that too often I don’t pray for them like I should. It’s helpful to have these prayers so we can contemplate both what we want for them and for ourselves.

I was stopped short by Ikos 5 of the akathist that prays the beatitude for my children:

Raise my children to be poor in spirit, that they May inherit the Kingdom of Heaven.
Raise my children to weep, that they may be comforted.
Raise my children to be meek, that they may inherit the earth.
Raise my children to hunger and thirst after righteousness, that they may be filled.
Raise my children to be merciful, that they may obtain mercy.
Raise my children to be pure in heart, that they may see God.
Raise my children to be peacemakers, that they may be called the sons of God.
Raise my children (names), O Lady, to be made worthy of the Kingdom of Heaven and make them heirs of eternal blessings.

So often it becomes obvious whether I really believe something when I’m trying to teach it to my children. As a father, I had to ask myself whether I really wanted my children to weep (or mourn). For that matter, do I really want the rest for them? Yes, I do. Lord, have mercy.

O Mary, Mother of God, save us!

One struggle Protestants have when looking at Orthodoxy is with how the church views the saints and most particularly the Virgin Mary. Most Protestants have a category for hearing stories about those that have lived the Christian faith well and have clearly loved God. Missionaries, prominent evangelists, and church leaders and founders are often highly regarded in this way. We can be encouraged by reading stories about these wonderful godly men and women. But when the Orthodox start talking about praying with the saints, praying to the saints, or asking Mary to save us, all sorts of alarms go off and it gets uncomfortable quickly.

I got to the point where I was convinced of the truth of Orthodoxy and knew that there was an pretty important point here, but at the same time, I knew that I just didn’t get it and wasn’t sure I liked it. I could understand saying that the saints pray with us. If I believe that they are alive in Christ then that’s not such a hard thing to believe. But pray to them? Ask them to save us? And why especially prayers to Mary?

Two things have helped me to appreciate this a little better: I’ve recently read Becoming Orthodox: A Journey to the Ancient Christian Faith by Fr. Peter Gillquist and I’ve been frequently praying an Akathist to the Mother of God, Nurturer of Children. I honestly can’t say which has helped more. I should point out that my struggle with praying to the saints was not because I thought Orthodox Christians worship Mary or the saints. It’s very clear that worship is reserved for God alone. We venerate and honor the saints (and each other).

We honor Mary as the prototype Christian. Mary is called Theotokos, or God-bearer, because she held in her womb that which the entire universe cannot contain — for the nine months she carried Christ inside her in his humanity, he was at the same time fully God. We honor her not just for giving birth to Christ, but for her yes to God. The Orthodox believe that Mary had a choice and continually turned toward God. As Christians we also want Christ to be born in us and to turn toward him, so we recognize her as a model of how we should be.

We honor Mary as our mother. As Eve was the mother of the human race, so Mary is the mother of the new race. Mary gave birth to and raised Christ, the Son of God. Through Christ’s death and resurrection, Mary becomes the mother of all who would be saved. Jesus, on the cross, saw his mother and said “Woman, behold your son!” and then to Saint John, “Behold your mother!” (John 19:26,27). We are also called the sons of God and called to be like Christ (1 John 3:1-3).

We know Mary wants our salvation. It is clear that Mary yielded her will to God and therefore desires that we be saved. But can she save us? Can we save others? As Fr. Peter notes, the answer from scripture is a resounding yes.

Take heed to yourself and to the doctrine. Continue in them, for in doing this you will save both yourself and those who hear you. (1 Timothy 4:16).

The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven. (James 5:15).

We cannot save alone—Christ said “Without me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Yet we can participate: “If you abide in Me and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you” (John 15:7). Clearly Mary was a important part of our salvation for she carried and gave birth to our savior.

Obviously this is a partial discussion of the reasons we venerate Mary. I glossed over many of the reasons that were less of a struggle for me: that she was the greatest woman who ever lived, her ever-virginity, that honoring her always reminds us of the incarnation, and that the church has always venerated her as she herself prophesied: “all generations will call me blessed” (Luke 1:46-48).

It’s interesting to write this on and after the day of the feast of the Protection of the Theotokos. The feast commemorates a miraculous appearance of the Theotokos during which she spread her veil over the people as a sign of protection and a russian fleet set to attack Constantinople was destroyed.

Christ was always on safari doing good

Church historian Dr. Jaroslav Pelikan was recently featured on the National Public Radio (NPR) program “Speaking of Faith” to talk about the publication of his latest work, Credo: Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition. The five-volume collection Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition, of which Credo serves as the introductory volume is already being hailed as surpassing all other works of its kind. Many expect that it will be considered the standard resource because it supercedes Philip Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom collection first published in 1870.

The christiancreeds.net website for Pelikan’s collection has fascinating information, including sample chapters and creeds. I was tickled by the wording of the featured Masai Creed and at the same time struck that its unique phrases are true. When Christianity is properly inculturated, all other cultures gain and see the truth in a new light.

So different

I’ve just got to say that I found Katie’s recounting of the conversation amusing, perhaps because it is so familiar. If you take a step back—it’s not so hard for me to do as a former Protestant—Orthodox practice does sound unbelievably intense and mind-numbingly outside the realm of any other Protestant experience. There is something refreshing about hearing other Orthodox Christians describing the same struggles, the same challenges, and the sobriety (and tiredness) of the end of lent. One of the things I’ve grown to love is how Orthodox Christians repent together and fast together. Yes, it’s hard… yes, the conversations can get old… but you’re not alone.

All Saints of North America

In looking up more information about Xenia Pokrovsky after reading about the upcoming Icon Writing Workshop in Lexington, I found a site that shows the Synaxis Of All Saints Who Have Shone Forth In North America icon that she wrote in 1994 for Metropolitan Theodosius. The site has closeups of the saints faces and events depicted. Unfortunately the scans are not the sharpest, but it’s still a nice resource to this beautiful icon. There’s also a somewhat clearer version that includes nice closeups of St. Raphael of Brooklyn.

I’d previously seen the Synaxis of Saints Who have Shone Forth in North America icon by the hand of Diane Plaskon Koory, which appears to be quite similar, but with a broader color palette.

It’s wonderful to look at these icons of the founding and forming of the church in North America.

By the way, work on the High Bridge Rail-trail, lenten services, and some extra hours at my day job have led to the recent lag between postings. More on all of those later.

Anticipating death

I’ve observed that those, especially Christians, suffering from terminal illnesses will often make a genuine effort to resolve broken relationships and to seek forgiveness from others. This is a way of preparing for death. I suspect the closer you are to death, the clearer you can see how precious life is.

Participating in Forgiveness Sunday vespers last week and contemplating the experience, I’m struck that this is how we should be. Every evening before going to sleep, we are reminded to prepare for our death. In the evening prayer of Saint John Damascene, our bed is compared to a coffin. We should live every day as though it were our last and spend our time in repentance.

I pray that this practice of forgiving those in my parish will help me learn the harder task of forgiving others and doing it more frequently.

I found the article Of Death and Dying to be helpful and challenging.

I can hear you

Basil writes some thoughts on acoustics in orthodox churches and mentions an excellent article by Reader David Nelson. I found this nice HTML version of the same article, Acoustical Guidelines for Orthodox Churches. Acoustical design can significantly impact Orthodox worship. Without proper care, the clarity of the speech and chanting will be lost and noise will be a distraction.

I’ve found it fascinating to read similar articles about the importance of acoustics in the Jewish Synagogue and find that most of the same design requirements apply.

Synagogue Acoustics: “Shema Yisrael (Hear, Israel) strongly implies that acoustics is fundamentally important to the design of Synagogues.… A pleasant sound and good speech intelligibility are blessings that will make the experience of the worship service more enjoyable, and create a precious opportunity to hear the human voice partaking in that most human activity, prayer.”

One thing I hadn’t realized is that electronically amplified sound is not permitted in the Orthodox Synagogue on the Sabbath. This has led to innovative solutions such as the Acousto-Fluidic Sound Augmentation that may produce better sound: “An interesting advantage of acoustic augmentation over electronic amplification is the fact that the entire process occurs at the speed of sound rather than at the speed of light. In our system the sound travels through the sound pipes at the same speed as the voice in air so that the sound coming out of a speaker arrives at the same time as the spoken voice or the outputs of nearer horns and, as a result, there is no bothersome echoing. Using an electronic system one has to specially design in time delays to prevent echoing. Consequently the acousto-fluidic system provides a very natural sound and rendition.”

Silence is Golden: “Some times we don’t want to hear everything. Imagine if you could hear and understand every conversation at your office. It would be terribly distracting. But when we do want to hear every little thing—at a religious service, in an important meeting, at a play, or at a concert—background noise is critical. During a lecture or sermon, any audible sound not made by the speaker is noise; during a performance, any audible sound not created by a performer is noise.” This general article about accoustics identifies many sources of noise. Ones that will most affect us at St. Athanasius are traffic noise, air conditioning, and buzz / hum from lights.

Participation in worship

A week ago I had the opportunity to visit St. Anne Orthodox Church (OCA) in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. The beauty of the chanting during the service surprised me, as I had visited months ago and hadn’t been as impressed. Perhaps the larger 10-15 member choir helped the sound fill the church. Perhaps it was just that the music was more familiar to me now that we’ve been using more of it at St. Athanasius. Whatever the reason, the chanting certainly helped me worship.

It struck me as I was listening to and singing some of the hymns that I had room for people not saying or doing anything in particular during a service. As a Protestant (Methodist/Wesleyan technically, but close enough) convert to Orthodoxy, I had carried along this need for “active participation”. It wasn’t a conscious thing, just an uncomfortable feeling that everyone should be doing the service together. In some of the more traditional methodist services, there’s an unstated rule that said you better stand and at least pretend to be singing along during the hymns. And everybody knows you need to bow your head when someone leads in prayer. I guess I’d just carried this along with me when I became orthodox. I don’t think this was about judging others’ behavior, just a kind of expectation that people would participate in the same way.

So there I was, worshipping God in the middle of an orthodox church and I suddenly realized it really didn’t matter what I or anyone else was doing. It was okay if some people weren’t singing; the choir was voicing our prayers. I know some people can’t sing well or are uncomfortable doing it. Fine. Let them pray. It was alright if some crossed themselves and others did not or if they did it differently. It just hit me that there’s a great freedom in worship. It is so hard to describe what participation looks like.

Find a saint by name bookmarklet

Chris asked me for a bookmarklet that searches the OCA website for a saint by name. I wrote one and added it to my bookmarklets page. This returns much nicer results than the one Basil wrote. Looks like he didn’t find the search box on the OCA Feast and Saints of the Church Year page, which is more difficult to find than it should be. It appears that his just does an OCA site search, which may be more generally useful.