Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Metropolitan Jonah's visit

Metropolitan Jonah visited our church the other day. Apparently this visit has been delayed for about a year and a half, because... and lets see if I have this right... Met. Jonah had just been promoted (is that the right word?) from abbot of... a monastery somewhere, to bishop... of a diocese or something (I know I sound retarded, but I don't know the specifics or details). Anyway, the current metropolitan, at that time a year and a half ago, was Vladyka Dimitri (vladyka means archbishop, I think). He decided to retire, and at that time Jonah had just been made a bishop... or an archbishop. Is a metropolitan the same as an archbishop? I don't know. He wasn't metropolitan yet... Jonah, that is. So he was probably just a bishop. And then Vladyka Dimitri retired...

Ok I'm probably royally screwing it up, so suffice it to say, Jonah took Dimitri's place as Archbishop of Washington and Metropolitan of All America and Canada, Locum Tenens of the Diocese of the South (I don't know what locum tenens translates to but that's part of the official title). Somehow, because of that, we lost a bishop but gained an archbishop. And also because of that, the scheduled visit had to be delayed until now.

So, this past Sunday Met. Jonah visited our tiny little parish, St. Maximus the Confessor Orthodox Mission here in Denton, TX. It is quite an honor for the head honcho of the Orthodox Church in America to visit our little church, and everybody was pretty excited. Dax, the subdeacon and choir director, had been preparing the music for quite a while, with parts of it being sung by the men's choir, and other parts being sung by a trio. It was pretty cool how it all came together, and the best part... for me, anyway... was that I got to sing with the choir too. Let me take a minute to describe how that happened.

First off, as everybody who knows me already knows, I'm pretty shy by nature and don't talk much... I usually hide behind Leah anytime there is a social situation at church, such as after the liturgy during coffee hour. I had never gone out of my way to talk to anybody at church except for Ben, who I kind of knew already because I used to see him frequently when I worked at 7-Eleven, and Fr. Justin, which was usually through e-mails. So I was surprised when one day, a few months ago, Dax approached me and started talking to me about music. I reacted by looking around for Leah, but apparently she had abandoned me, so I resigned myself to slogging through an awkward conversation without getting the shakes and hyperventilating. We started talking about our musical experience and I mentioned that I had played euphonium in high school. As it turns out, Dax had also played the euphonium. I was still feeling mostly like an outsider at church, as I hadn't warmed up to many people yet, so I was heartened to learn that Dax and I had something in common. With this new feeling of camaraderie in place, I warmed up a little and began to feel more confident. I decided to brag a little (at church, no less) so I told him that I had taken piano lessons for about 20 years. Oh, really? Yeah, my grandma was a teacher for the National Guild, so I got free lessons while growing up. I have a social music degree in piano and received the Paderewski Medal, and I'm qualified to teach if I ever decided to. (this is where all the bragging backfires) Dax says, I assume you can read music pretty well, then? Oh yeah, sure, I can read music. Treble and bass clef? Sure, treble and bass clef - I'm more comfortable with treble clef, but sure, I can read bass clef. Cool. I'm putting together a men's choir, do you want to be in it?

...what did he just ask me? If I wanted to be in a men's choir, here, at church? After all that bragging about my musical qualifications, all I could say was, yeah, sure that would be cool... and that's how I was abducted into the men's choir. And it really was cool; as it turns out I LIKE being in the choir. I even get to help with vigils sometimes when they need an extra person.

Anyway, back to whatever it was I was talking about before I digressed... the visit by Metropolitan Jonah. So, Dax had put all of this music together and we had been having extra choir practices so that we wouldn't sound like crap on the big day. There had been some discussion as to where to put the choir, as everybody wanted a good view of the proceedings. The choir usually stands in a little nook located to the right of the altar, which would be just fine if it weren't for a part of the wall near the back of the nook which juts forward. Anyone standing in that part of the nook wouldn't be able to see anything, really... so I felt lucky to be situated near the front of the nook, where I would have a good view. At least, that's where I have always stood when we practiced before, so that's where I stood on Sunday when the choir was getting ready. At least for about 30 seconds, after which Dax had me switch places with Adam. Now I was in the far corner of the nook, and I had a clear view of... my music. I looked up at the shiny brass where the ceiling fan was mounted, hoping that I might be able to catch a reflection of the upcoming action. I sighed and gave Mark, the other tenor standing next to me, a look of resignation. I guess we would just have to watch the video.

So, the liturgy progressed and I missed all of it, but the choir sounded good and we only screwed up once, when we tried to sing on top of the clergy, who were supposed to be chanting by themselves. And one other time when I don't really know what happened... the choir was tooling along fine, and then we got to a part that we weren't sure about and everybody just kind of 'gave up' because Dax wasn't looking at us. Other than those two little tidbit nitpicks, I think we sounded really good. Met. Jonah even complimented the choir after the liturgy. I wish I had more to talk about pertaining to the liturgy, but being stuck in the corner and concentrating on singing, I pretty much missed all the cool stuff, like the vesting (Leah had described it to me beforehand as a practice in which Met. Jonah would be 'vested' by the rest of the clergy... that is, they would attire him with his vestments). I'll know what else I missed when I watch the video, which I'm looking forward to. I am extremely glad that I got to sing in the choir on that day though.

Afterward, we all had lunch like we usually do after the liturgy, and then Met. Jonah answered questions for a couple of hours. I have to admit that I didn't pay as much attention as I would have at another time, because I was extremely nervous about talking to Vladimir the iconographer. I had e-mailed him earlier in the week asking for his advice on how best to proceed if I wanted to be an iconographer, and he suggested that we talk about it today, after the liturgy. I mentioned to him in the e-mail that I had painted an icon, and he said to bring it and we'd talk about that, too. This came as a great surprise to me, as I hadn't counted on actually seeing him in person so soon, but since he's a deacon, in retrospect it's obvious that he would be attending services that day. I pretty much spent the entire Q & A session building up more and more nervous energy at the prospect of approaching Vladimir and talking to him. The longer it went on, the more nervous I became, and I began to wonder if I would ever get a chance to talk to Vladimir. Inwardly I was almost hoping that I wouldn't... that maybe he would get tired and leave early without my noticing. Finally the Q & A ended however, so I built up my nerve and approached Vladimir and introduced myself. He remembered the e-mail and we talked back and forth for a bit, but I don't remember a thing about what was said. I do remember mentioning that I had sent him a link to the icon I'd painted, and he said that he wasn't able to view it for some reason... and to try sending it again, and that felt very much like the end of the discussion until I informed him that I had brought the icon with me, and that it was in the car, and that I could go get it if he wanted to see it. Sure, he replied, go get it. He turned away briefly and then turned back again... give me 5 minutes, ok? Then he disappeared into the library nook.

I was somewhat discomfited by the encounter so far and wasn't feeling at all confident about showing him the icon, but I retrieved it from the car and then waited in the bookstore for Vladimir to return. I really didn't like standing there with all of those people around, icon in hand. I felt very self conscious... I guess I didn't want anyone else seeing it. No, it wasn't that... I posted it online for people to see, after all. I didn't want people thinking that I'd brought it to church to show it off. I'm somewhat self conscious about it as it's the first thing I've painted in almost 20 years, and to top it off, here I am actually trying to pass it off as a holy icon to the guy who decorated the St. Seraphim cathedral in Dallas. So, I kept it pressed against my chest, back side facing outwards. Leah stood there with me and we exchanged nervous smiles until Vladimir appeared. I showed him the icon. He examined it with a dispassionate eye and remarked that I should concentrate on old Byzantine icons, not this 'new stuff', or maybe he said 'modern stuff'. I assumed he was referring to the style of the original icon which I had reproduced... or maybe he didn't realize that it was a reproduction and thought that it was original, and that my style was less desirable than the old Byzantine style. It was a little difficult communicating with Vladimir, being that sometimes his accent baffled me, and also because my powers of speech often fail me in anxious situations and I wind up stuttering until I finally expel a adjective or synonym completely inadequate to my purpose. Next he asked me what medium I'd used, and I said acrylic. "No, acrylic is awful. Terrible medium." I agreed... I didn't like acrylics either. I told him that I was used to painting with oils. "No, oils are even worse than acrylic... terrible." Ok... Well, I thought to myself, it's either one or the other, for now anyway, as I know diddly squat about painting with actual egg tempera. Vladimir continued to examine my icon. Finally, he said to not use so much dark... "don't pain so much black." He pointed out dark areas on the painting. Then he said that I should study life drawing. I told him that I had taken lots of life drawing classes and had quite a bit of material done with pencil and charcoal. He nodded and then told me basically that there weren't any good art schools in America, and wrapped up our conversation by suggesting again that I concentrate on old Byzantine icons, not to use to much black, to stay away from oils at all costs, and to paint on MDF (medium density fiberboard). This last part completely befuddled me, as I have specifically read in the icon book I checked out from the church library NOT to use MDF, as it was an unsuitable surface which would not absorb the gesso.

I walked away from that experience pretty much perplexed. I guess I was kind of hoping that he'd offer to take me under his wing and teach me everything he knew... not that I really thought that would happen. However, as far as getting some good knowledge from a good source goes, Vladimir is pretty much it as far as I know. Iconography isn't exactly a popular practice in America, and I don't know of any schools or classes that teach it. However, I'm extremely lucky to have gotten the chance to talk to an iconographer like Vladimir. I'm sure I'll figure out a way to learn more from him.