Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pascha, from my perspective

It's been a long time since I blogged anything. So what's to tell? There have been many blog-worthy occurrences at work and what-not, but my laptop computer is currently being held hostage by a beautiful yet cunning she-vampire and I can't seem to get access to the net when I'm in the mood to write. So, at the moment, I'm at home in my brothers' room, making use of his accommodations. I think he wants to usurp his workstation soon, so... whatever. Nope, never mind, he just went to the library.

I'll talk about Pascha, mmm k? Just recently I attended my first Orthodox Pascha service. Let's see if I can describe it accurately without making an idiot out of myself... Pascha is Easter for Orthodox Christians, and I THINK that it actually means 'passover', which I think... if I'm not completely clueless... is named thusly because the Old Testament passover was some kind of precursor. Or something... anyway, it actually begins by kicking off Holy Week on Lazarus Saturday, which was April 11th this year, and lasts until the end of Bright Week, which was April 26th. That is if I'm not completely retarded. My first taste of it started during Holy Week, where Leah and I went to a few of the night services to get warmed up. I'm not even going to try to remember which services they were... liturgies, matins, vespers, or vigils... as I still have a hard time discerning the differences between all of them. Anyway, Pascha is the culmination of about 40 days of fasting. Lent, in other words. It is the celebration of the resurrection of Christ from the dead after He was crucified. From what I understand, it is the most revered and anticipated event in the Orthodox religion. When I stop to really think about it, I can understand why Pascha seems to be... well, how do I say it without being completely wrong... more important? ... than Christmas, or Nativity as it is referred to by Orthodox Christians. It is sad and joyous at the same time. I think it's the Orthodox celebration or event or holiday... I'm not quite sure how to refer to it... that MEANS the most.

What one is supposed to do is go the entire 40 days adhering to the fast, which mostly consists of cutting out meat, dairy, oil, and wine. There are certain days when wine and oil are allowed, and a very few days when it's ok to eat fish (my birthday, March 25th, is one of them... yay!), but mostly it's kind of like being vegan for 40 days. Well, I of course cheated quite a bit, but for the most part I think I did fairly well... with the fasting, anyway (there's more to Lent than just fasting, but I won't get into that. I'm not even supposed to be talking about my fasting experience, come to think of it... oh well).

So, I pretty much succeeded in cutting out MOST red meat from my diet. There were a few times when I ate some of the vile food at 7-Eleven (I work there), and when my grandmother died just recently in March, I went to my moms for a few days and ate some eggs and cheese and ham. All in all I'd say that I fasted correctly for a little under two thirds of the entire 40 day period.

So anyway, back to Pascha. Like I was saying, the end of the fast was approaching with the weekend. Gravewatch was also coming up, so Leah and I signed up for a couple of shifts. I've never done anything remotely like this, so I was intrigued and looking forward to it. Basically it's this... on Holy Saturday (I think), everybody takes an hour long shift standing next to Christs' tomb while reading Psalms. The idea is to have somebody there at the tomb, keeping a vigil, in case Christ decides to choose that specific Pascha to come back. My shift was at 2:00 am and Leah's was at 1:00 am. Leah and I decided to combine ours into a single two hour shift with both of us taking turns reading the Psalms. So, I set my alarm for 12:45 so I'd have time to get up, pick up Leah, and drive to the church. Thusly prepared, I kicked back to take a nap at about 11:00 pm. I was pretty sleepy (the week before was tiring, what with the night services combined with my work schedule) and, still dressed, I laid back and konked out pretty quickly. The next thing I knew, I woke up and it was 1:20 am.

ARRRGH!!! Why didn't my alarm go off?? I groped in the dark for my phone. I had set the alarm, I was SURE of it! I happened across it, flipped it open, and saw that Leah had called about 30 gazillion times. I checked the alarm settings... they were set correctly. So, What gives?? I checked the ringer settings. Wulp, that explains it... the ringer was turned off. I rolled my eyes, thumped myself on the ear, hopped out of bed and scrambled around in the dark for my shoes. After wasting about 45 seconds doing that, I located the presence of mind to turn on my bedside lamp. I was blind for about half a minute, and it was almost 1:22 am. I finally found my shoes and hurridly put them on. I started looking for my keys. I spent about one minute in my room throwing clothes all over the place, trying to uncover them. I gave up and pretty much ran into the living room, where I saw them lying on the coffee table. By then it was almost 1:25 am, and I was still not quite wide awake as I rushed out the front door which slammed shut behind me. Next I got the car door open and shut, this occurring within about a two second time frame, with me occupying the interim for just long enough to wind up safely ensconced within. I started her up and backed quickly and haphazardly out of the yard and onto Sena St. Gas pedal to the floor, I braked almost immediately and turned left on Gober. Gas and brake again, then straight across Scripture and onto Jago I went. I screamed past Leah's apartment complex, but I didn't bother to stop... I was sure that she hadn't overslept, and I fully expected to find her at the church, grave-watching and reading Psalms. Ok... right on Oak, pedal to the floor for about a quarter of a mile, BRAKE and then a quick right turn into the church parking lot. I swooped into a parking place and in one fluid motion I put it in park, turned off the ignition, doused the lights, opened the door, and before the door was shut and remotely locked with my handy remote control key chain, I was through the front door and in the book store. I saw Leah in the sanctuary, standing next to the tomb, with a bible opened in front of her on a stand. I slowed down and composed myself and walked in. When I opened the door, I could hear her, and was surprised that she was chanting the Psalms like a tonsured reader. She told me she'd be doing it like that, but it was still somewhat of a surprise. After a few seconds, she turned around and smiled, and I mouthed the words "I'm sorry!". Then I sat down and listened to her read.

After about 5 minutes, Leah stopped and approached me with some candles. She gave them to me and I put them in a candle stand by the tomb and lit them. Then she asked me if I wanted to take a turn. So, nervous and still a little out of breath, I got my chance to read. How do I describe the experience? I don't know... fun? No, not that, too whimsical of a description. Interesting? Definitely, but that doesn't do it justice. Relaxing? Hmmm... kind of. Looking back on it, I realize that with the candles providing an intimate kind of atmosphere while I stood there pretty much motionless except for turning the pages of the Psalm book and reading those Psalms in a kind of droning monotone (I didn't chant, I was too self conscious), the combination of environment, mood and actions must have put me into a trance-like state... kind of like when I used to hypnotize myself. Let me put it like this... Leah and I read the Psalms in 'shifts'. About 10 minutes after I arrived, Leah invited me to read, and I read. After just a few minutes of reading (or so it seemed to me), Leah offered to spell me for a bit and she took another shift. I sat and listened to her read, and It seemed like she read for about a half hour before she invited me to take over again. I read for what seemed like another 5 or 10 minutes, and then Leah read for what seemed like another half hour or more. It was at this time when Tikhon, who was scheduled at 3:00, showed up for his grave watch shift. What? thought I. He's very early... I wondered if he thought his shift was at 2:00 am instead of 3:00 am. Tikhon went forward and prostrated himself in front of the tomb. And now I must interrupt for a bit, because I suddenly just remembered this...

... that night was the first night for me to venerate anything. Veneration (this is my understanding by the way, without looking anything up or asking anybody anything, so I'm probably retarded) is when one pays respect to an icon or, in this case, the tomb of Christ, by either crossing yourself in front of it, bowing in front of it, prostrating yourself in front of it, kissing it, or a combination of all of those. So, shortly after I arrived at the church, Leah asked me if I wanted to venerate the tomb, as we had discussed it earlier. We stood together in front of the tomb, she close by my side for support, and we venerated the tomb together. We crossed ourselves and prostrated, twice, then we went forward to kiss the icon lying in the tomb, and then we crossed ourselves and prostrated one more time. There... I had crossed a thresh hold. I had been nervously dreading doing this for months, for what reason I was never quite sure, and I had finally done it! I wasn't sorry, I wasn't uncomfortable, and I didn't feel stupid. Huh... I guess I knew the reasons after all.


... Tikhon approached the tomb to venerate it and Leah noticed him. When he was finished, she stood aside and Tikhon took her place and started reading. I thought this was all decidedly odd, as I had expected to be there for at least another hour, but maybe Leah was just tired. So, after we exited the church, I asked Leah why we were leaving so early. Of course, as it turned out, we weren't leaving early at all... it was 3:00 am. What had seemed like 5-10 minute shifts as I read turned out to be 30-40 minutes each. Time didn't just seem to go by faster, it FLEW by. I really was amazed that all that time had already passed... an hour and a half had only seemed like 30 minutes. Looking back, I'm sure now that the I had put myself into a light hypnotic state. The low light, the flickering candles, the standing still, all while reading in a dull monotone was very conducive to this; it was a lot like meditation. Oh, and by the way, I discovered my favorite Psalm... Psalm 102, which is a poor man praying to God in desperation. The imagery is very moving... here's a link.

So, finally it's Pascha. Everybody is there at 11:30 pm on Saturday evening (technically it's Sunday because Orthodox Christians count it as tomorrow when the sun sets) and we all crowd in. The service starts, and the music is just phenomenally beautiful. Orthodox Christian services consist mainly of music, sung by a choir, with no instruments. When I first started attending services at St. Maximus The Confessor Orthodox Mission (that's the full name of the church), I was a little disconcerted that there was no piano or organ. After my first vigil however, I realized that we didn't need no stinkin' organ. The music at an Orthodox service is some of the most beautiful music I've ever heard, and it often moves me to tears. During the Pascha service that night, I had to struggle to keep the tears in check. What I heard that night was heart-breakingly, astoundingly, just flat out phenomenally beautiful. I saw other people wiping there eyes and the sound of sniffles was ubiquitous. I was wondering... is this it? Is this how it feels? Did it finally happen? Am I filled with the Holy Spirit? I didn't know and I still don't know, but at one point that night during the Pascha service, I was profoundly happy.

For the first half of the service, it's almost pitch black in the church. The only light comes from the choir so they can read their music. Then, at a designated time, everybody goes outside and marches around the church three times (symbolizing the three days that Christ lay in the tomb) while following Fr. Justin, Fr. Christopher, Dax and the altar boys as they carried something... it wasn't the entire tomb, we did that the night before. I believe it was an icon or that golden book which contained just the Gospels, both of which had been lying in the tomb. Anyway... so, after three processions around the church, something else happens that I'm not clear on. I think Fr. Justin knocks on the church door and says something, and somebody inside replies with something, and then we all go back in to find that all of the lights are turned on and the tomb has disappeared! Then the service turns into a joyous occasion, with Fr. Justin and Fr. Christopher blessing everything with the incense censers and crying, "Christ is risen!" with everybody replying "Indeed he is risen!" Then there is a lot of hugging and kissing and crying, which freaked me out at first, but then I just took some deep breaths and let it happen. And honestly, it wasn't so bad.

The whole thing lasted until almost 3:00 am, by which time I was about to fall out from weariness. However, I also felt kind of energized... it's a difficult feeling to describe. I was looking forward to breaking the fast, which is what everybody does after Lent and Pascha. So, once the service was finished, Fr. Justin blessed the food and then we all lined up and grabbed some beers and some brisket and everybody sat down to eat, drink and be merry. I had a little bit of brisket and some other various meat products, plus a Guinness, and Leah and I sat next to Fr. Justin and Matushka. It was imminently enjoyable, but we didn't stay long as we were both exhausted. So, after about 45 minutes we left church for our respective abodes. I got home, crawled into bed, and with my last waking thought that of looking forward to the afternoon picnic (there was a picnic planned for Pascha Sunday in the afternoon, after everybody had slept and recovered), I slept.

I woke up only about two hours after lying down with horrible stomach cramps. OWW!!! It hurt! I ran to the bathroom. I did some stuff in there that was awful and uncomfortable and gross, and then I went back to bed. Five minutes later and I was back in the bathroom, moving meat through intestines that hadn't experienced such for 40 days. I couldn't believe that I was actually having a negative reaction from fasting! Even though I was in severe pain and wanted to lose consciousness, I felt good at the same time because the pain was proof that I really had fasted, in a way. Not perfectly, but enough so that my intestines didn't know what meat was anymore. This went on for about two hours, and I was beginning to worry that I wouldn't be able to go to the Pascha picnic. I did get better though, and was in fair shape by 2:00. There was a vespers service at 3:00 before the picnic, and Leah's parents had flown in for the occasion, so we all went together. I was afraid to eat the meat, but it looked so damn good that I just piled it down onto the plate and took my chances. I am not lying or exaggerating one bit when I say that THAT food was the best tasting, most satisfying, most appealing meal I've EVER eaten. EVER. I'm sure it had something to do with depriving myself from the good stuff for so long, but I'm also wondering if there was more to it... you know, just 'more' than can be described by plain ole logic and what-not. Like, it tasted so good and it WAS so good due to the circumstances of Pascha. I'm sure that was a big part of it.

I've been attending services at St. Maximus off and on, mostly at night, since early January 2009... for about four months. My best friend Svetlana Leah introduced me to Orthodoxy, and I thank her profusely for her kind patience and personal sacrifice as I struggle with, witness, and embrace the ongoing process of my conversion to the Orthodox Christian Church.

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