Thursday, October 8, 2009

Vespers in East Texas

The other day my mom called and asked me if I could house-sit for several days so that she and Ed (my step-dad) could attend a wedding in Massachusetts. Having no prior engagements or responsibilities tying me to Denton from the 6th to the 14, I considered it my good fortune that I happen to be unemployed at the moment. Oh, and incidentally, my 20 year class reunion is this weekend. I really don't understand how this is possible, by the way... can anyone explain this to me? The last I checked, I was in my 20's...

...anyway, other than the impending feeling of encroaching doom as the date of my reunion approaches, I'm looking forward to a relatively stress-free week here in Winnsboro as I relax, set things on fire in the backyard fire-pit, read, watch the tube (they have satellite TV here on a 46 inch screen!), mess around online, enjoy the abundant contents of their pantry, and play with my four favorite dogs.

Today I was thinking that it would be cool to attend an Orthodox service while I'm here. I thought I remembered there being an Orthodox parish in Tyler, so I did a Google search... and lo and behold, there are two - Holy Apostles Antiochian Orthodox Church, and St. John of Damascus Orthodox Church. Intrigued, I loaded the website of Holy Apostles and read this description on the main page:

"We teach the ancient Traditions of the Apostolic Christian faith with a contemporary message that will enrich your life. "

The 'contemporary message' part kind of threw me, so I loaded the St. John of Damascus website. The first paragraph describes the church as a mission of the Orthodox Church in America, so I closed the other website (sorry, Holy Apostles) and checked the service schedule for St. John of Damascus. As it so happened, there was a vespers service scheduled tonight at 7:00. If I left at 5:30, I thought that I should be able to get there on time (Tyler is about 50 miles south of Winnsboro). So, armed with that knowledge, I resolved that I should check out this East Texas Orthodox church.

It was inevitable that some kind of unforseen complication should delay me, so I got started later than I had planned. Since mapquest wouldn't print the maps directly, I had to grab screenshots of little pieces of the map, load them into Photoshop, and manually splice them together so I wouldn't have to rely only on just the directions. Finally, with map in hand, I walked out the back door at 5:47. According to the directions, I had to make a left turn on Farm Road something-or-another, so I dutifully made my left turn... onto a podunk back road filled with hairpin curves and dotted with slowpoke drivers. I consulted my map again and saw that if I had just stayed on the highway instead of taking this back woods trail, I would have enjoyed a straight shot to Tyler. I compared the two routes on the map and saw little or no difference, except that Farm Road watchamacallit was shaped like the readout on a heart monitor, while the highway had a zen-like curvature which was very attractive. Apparently mapquest had seen fit to supply me with a shortcut or something. Maybe that left turn was a shortcut in Virtual Fairy Land where 50 miles is only an inch and a half, but not here on planet Earth. So, after about a mile, I turned around and high-tailed it back to the highway.

The rest of the directions were relatively easy to follow, and I found myself pulling up to St John of Damascus at about 6:55. I was surprised to see about a dozen cars crammed into the small front yard, and I had to squeeze into a narrow space between two which were parked at 45 degrees to each other. I got out and gave the place a once over. It was a small church, occupying what looked to be a renovated house with narrow, vertical windows installed on each side of the entrance. I went inside and peeked tentatively into the foyer. To the right was a room where three or four people were talking and apparently waiting for the service to start. I turned my attention to the sanctuary before me. To the right was the iconostasis, and to the left of it and against the wall was the choir, which was involved in an animated practice session. There were about 10 people in the choir; I saw 3 kids who looked to be about 8 or 9, a few teenagers, and several adults ranging from their early 20's to late middle age. I decided, since I apparently still had some time, that I would sign the guest book. I looked around for a pen, but there wasn't one so I went back out to the car to dig around. I was rummaging through the glove box, looking for a pen, when I was approached by someone.

"Can I help you?" I heard behind me.

I turned around and saw a man dressed in a black cassock. He looked to young to be a priest, so I assumed that he must be the reader. I admit that I felt a little put off, as I have often been the subject of suspicion in similar circumstances where I happen to be the stranger hanging around purposefully in a clean cut group. And this was East Texas, after all, where people are known not to take too kindly to folks of my appearance. Then again, maybe I was just being paranoid and this guy was only trying to be helpful.

"I'm just looking for a pen so I can sign the guestbook," I replied.

"Ok," he said with a smile as he walked back into the church. Having procured a pen, I followed him in and signed the guest book; which, I noticed, hadn't been signed since July of '08. It was then that the Priest approached me.

He extended his hand and said "Hi, I'm Father John."

I took his proffered hand. "I'm Ashley. I'm from St. Maximus Orthodox Mission in Denton. Father Justin is the priest there."

"Oh yes," he replied, nodding his head vigorously. "Do you know..." He mentioned someone by name, but I can't remember who it was. "He's been around for about 3 years."

I didn't know if he meant that this person had been around St. Maximus for about 3 years, or St. John of Damascus. It was moot anyway, because I didn't know the guy. "No, I can't say that I know him," I replied. "But I've only been attending services there for about 9 months, and only during the past 3 have I had the chance to attend the divine liturgy frequently because now I don't have to work on Sundays."

Father John nodded and smiled and said, "So, what brings you to this area?"

"I'm here house sitting for my mom, and since I'm in the area, I wanted to see the vespers here tonight."

Father John nodded and smiled. "Oh yes, we'll be starting in a few minutes. Thank you for coming."

He disappeared into a room to the right of the iconostasis, and I was left alone there in the foyer. I didn't want to stand there like a lump, so I decided that I would just walk into the sanctuary and wait for the service to start. I stood there for a few minutes, wondering if it was ok to venerate the icons (the choir was taking up a lot of space around them). I finally decided to go ahead and venerate them. There was a music stand placed directly between the two icons which made it awkward to traverse the space between them, so after I venerated the icon of Christ, I had wriggle and writhe my way around the stand and between a couple of people so that I could venerate the icon of the Theotokos. After that, I stepped back and waited for the service to start.

One thing I noticed as I stood there watching the choir practice was that people in this church were a lot more casual and talkative before the service. Several people in the choir were joking and laughing, and I also heard laughter coming from the foyer. One thing that was exactly the same, however, was the abundance of little children running all over the place. This wasn't surprising; parents do have a habit of bringing the little buggers with them wherever they go. I felt a pang of friendly jealousy as I watched them running and laughing, that unlike myself, these kids were probably born into the Orthodox faith.

Finally things started to quiet down and the service started. I don't know why I was surprised that I was so familiar with the entire process, but it felt good and I was filled with a serene feeling of 'belonging''. These people were perfect strangers, yet I felt close to them at the same time; as if we all shared a well kept secret that only a few lucky people ever had the good fortune to discover. As the service progressed, I began to feel a kind of euphoria and I felt that I was on the verge of an epiphany. Everything seemed more right than it had ever seemed to me... suddenly it was all so easy. I reveled in this feeling.

When the service ended, I venerated the icons again and then I just kind of stood there, looking around at everybody. Someone approached me and introduced himself, but I'm terrible with names so I don't remember his. He told me that he used to be a deacon at The Church of Christ until about four years ago, when he discovered the Orthodox church. I asked him if he knew about the 'Real Live Preacher' blog, about the Baptist minister who was attending Orthodox services. He replied warmly that he had in fact read that blog, and we shared a feeling of closeness. We talked some more, and he invited me to the adult class that was about to begin. I had to beg off though, because I was anxious to get home and let the dogs in. I told him that I would like to attend the Sunday liturgy, though.

Then, on the front porch, I had another nice conversation with Theophane, who happened to be the one who had addressed me earlier before the service. I hope I remembered his name correctly. He was the most unique looking of the group; possibly of hispanic descent, with a dark complexion, long black hair, and a full beard. When I mentioned that I was from Denton, he smiled a familiar smile and said that he knew Father Justin well.

I finally left at about 8:15 after talking for about 30 minutes with various people. As I was driving home the feeling of euphoria persisted all the way.

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