When we were starting to research Orthodoxy I was a little wary of confession. I am an American. We don't like other people to tell us what to do. The idea, as I understood it at the time, was that I had to go tell some guy all my deep dark secrets or else God wasn't going to forgive me.
When we had decided we would be converting to Orthodoxy, and I was preparing for my first confession, it was more like a hurtle in a race. I knew I had to run a course, and this was part of that course. I wanted to finish this race, and so I was going to learn to jump the hurtle.
After my first confession, I realized confession was not an obligation, it was a privilege. I don't have to go to confession, I get to go to confession. It's not a hurtle in a foot race, it's a pit stop in a car race. Not something I'm striving to make it past but that I am just trying to keep going until.
Maybe it is all a matter of perspective.


Agia Skepi

I have been trying to think of what to write about my pilgrimage to the monastery. There are things that are very hard to put into words. I'm going to give a basic account of what my days consisted of. (Leaving out some bits of information that are a little too private for the unfettered internet. If you want to ask me about it I'd be happy to talk to you in person.)

My drive up was a series of wind, traffic, rain, and hail. When I arrived at the monastery I was surprised to learn that I had beat the storm (by hours) and instead of rushing to the guest house trying to keep my things dry I gladly sat on the porch in the sun and listened to the birds and smelled the sister's amazing roses while I waited for my friends to arrive. I had arrived in the middle of Compline & Vespers, which I didn't know, and the whole property was empty and silent. There was something that originally stuck me as unreal about the place. Even the air was different. After some time, and some talk with friends, I realized it wasn't UNREAL, it was HYPER-REAL. This place was more real than anywhere else I had ever been before.
The guest house is laid out and organized like the world's greatest hostel. When Joanna arrived she took me into the church for the end of Vespers. The smell, of course, was intoxicating. The chanting was breathtaking. The language was Greek, which might have been a problem, but I will get to that in a moment. After vespers Sister Marina showed us to our room. Sister Marina is a tall pretty woman. As I typed pretty I realized that I would have described all the sisters as pretty, though they are all different shapes, sizes, and ages. I think the reason I feel compelled to describe them as pretty, or even beautiful, is because the love and humility they each have make it impossible to see them as anything else. People talk about inner beauty, this was so much inner beauty that it was spilling out of them.
Sister Marina is in charge of the guesthouse and she made sure we had food, pillows, clean sheets, and work. By Friday I was starting to listen hard for Sister Marina before meals so that I could go out and help her set the tables, otherwise she would do it so quickly and quietly it was almost like everything appeared there magically. I never felt tempted to just let her do it, which of course she wouldn't have minded, because the warmth of her thanks for even the smallest task (like filling a pitcher with tap water) was intoxicating. She tried to teach me a Greek phrase, which of course I can't transliterate, it is like thank you, but it literally means "you have lightened me". Her task is hospitality, and she is certainly up to it.
I tried to take a walk around the lower grounds at least once a day, it was just so pretty and so peaceful. Sometimes, especially if I was walking with Joanna who has been a regular at the Monastery for the last 15 years, a sister would stop and talk and we would be introduced. They would ask if I was Orthodox, and I would say "Not until July 30th" and each sister would say "Oh I will remember you in my prayers, especially on that day". Joanna says that having one of the sisters promise to pray for you is not like having someone else promise to pray for you, they mean it and they don't say it lightly. (Though they do say it often!!) One sister told us about the icons in the church and found us an akathist book in English to chant with a very special icon.
If you want to work, there is always work to do! On our first day we peeled garlic. There would have been too much for the punch bowl they gave us to put the peeled cloves in. Thankfully, the Greek men staying in the guesthouse while they did construction for the sisters kept coming through and eating garlic like peanuts. On Friday and Saturday we picked rose petals for jelly and helped Kyria Maria make wedding and baptism favors. Kyria Maria is a Greek woman whose family has designed wedding dresses, favors, candles, and the like for 3 or more generations. She is not a nun, but works at the monastery, and is a gifted artist. She has a way of upholding her perfectionist standards without hurting your feelings. (I now have it on good authority that I am not capable of wrapping candy covered almonds in tulle!) I thought I was crafty, but Kyria Maria is on a whole new level.
We talked with her for hours while we worked. She asked me about my background and I asked questions about Orthodox traditions. The conversations were slow, because her English is limited and my Greek is non-existent, but there was no rush.
Church was something else entirely. On Friday morning, Feast of the Nativity of the Forerunner, we went to Divine Liturgy at 3:30 in the morning. Of all the services we attended while we were there, this was my favorite. Partly, it was easier to keep up after Joanna was sweet enough to give me an early Chrismation gift, my very own prayer book in English. Partly it was ambiance. The church was lit only by oil lamps and candles. The sisters added a black veil to their habits in church. It didn't cover the face, but it cast a shadow. It made the sisters indistinguishable from one another. All you could see was a black shape and hands. It struck me as profound. These women found fulfillment, love, and joy in losing themselves to Christ's service. I pray that one day I can tame my passions and my desires are so simple and Godward.
Also on Friday I met the Father of the monastery, Fr. Mark. He is a Texan man who has been speaking mostly Greek for the last 20 years or so. It gives a very interesting quality to his big voice. He spoke to me about the importance of confession and absolution. He answered a question I had about iconography with a lesson in my inability to work out my salvation without the grace and love of Christ. And it was an AMAZING lesson! He told me there are a few monasteries near where I would be moving in Oregon and advised me to build a relationship with one.
On Saturday I met the Gerontissa, or Abbess, of the Monastery. (That is not a literal translation but an equivalent rank.) I had learned from Joanna that I was supposed to touch the ground in front of her and then kiss her left hand, but as a bent to touch the ground she embraced me and kissed my cheek. She wears love like a perfume. I keep thinking of it as a smell. It wasn't something I saw, though her eyes are kind and her smile is gentle. It's not her voice, though she has a beautiful voice whether she is speaking or singing. It's just something that I was aware of. You don't need her to look at you or speak to you to know that she loves you. In fact, you don't even have to meet her if you are willing to take my word for it that she loves you, even if she doesn't know you. She asked me about my conversion. She asked me about my husband. She told me that I should consider the monastery my home in the mountains. She also said I had to come back as often as I can until we move, and bring Brian with me. She ended our little chat by telling me that not only were there a few monasteries on the wets coast, but in fact their sister monastery was in Yakima, Washington and that I should go there as soon as I could and they would welcome me.
One of the more poignant moments was the last interaction I had before we drove off. Kyria Maria said in her broken English, "You must come back before you move so that we can go to Holy Communion together, we will be together." I almost cried.
I was changed for the better, and I am trying to make sure that I don't let it wear off. I don't know if I communicated any of this well, but there it is. It was good for me to work out for myself. I hope it is helpful for someone who reads it.

O Lady, Thou dost help us held fast by a storm of many afflictions: for Thou dost stand before the altar of the Lord, lifting Thine hands and praying that the Lord of glory look down on our unworthy prayer and hearken to the petitions of those who call upon Thy holy Name crying to Thy Son:Alleluia!

Kontakion 4 - Akathist to the Holy Protection of the Theotokos


The Future

Brian and I will be moving in approximately 90 days. We are packing only what we can fit into our Subaru, shipping the car across the country, and then heading out ourselves with our faithful puppy Peanut and misanthropic feline Anubis.
No, we do not have jobs. No, we do not have a place to live. But we do have a church, a partner, and a plan. We visited Church of the Annunciation in Milwaukie, Oregon when we were visiting Brian's family in April. When I came into the church I felt warm and many of my apprehension about moving to the other side of the country were softened. I knew that this ridiculous plan was a good one.
We, along with our friend Mylo, want to eventually have a farm (or manor as Mylo prefers to describe it) with a house and out buildings made of Cob. We want to live off of the land, and support ourselves by producing things. We want to extricate ourselves from consumer culture. We want to produce most of what we need in life. For those things we can't produce we want to barter first and buy second. We want to fund the buying by  producing, not by working for some business. Eventually, we want to produce enough to care for people we encounter who, through infirmity or ignorance, can not care for themselves.
We have always had this sort of idea in the back of our heads. We have always dreamed of a self-sufficient farm. But now we are done with dreaming, we are doing. Sure, we are starting with little steps, but we are acting and we are not allowing ourselves to fall into a complacent lifestyle of "one day" thinking. Our conversion is a big part of this decision.
There is a sense that by leaving Luther's Five Solas behind our lives must change. Just as leaving Sola Scriptura behind means relearning how to study Scripture and Theology; leaving Sola Fide changes how you make life choices. I am not saying that moving to a farm in Oregon and churning goat's milk somehow saves anyone. I am saying that when you understand that the eternal health of your soul is linked in a very real way to what you do on earth you start to think a little harder about the choices you make.
So off we go, to find a temporary house, some temporary jobs, and maybe even get some (permanent) Bachelor's Degrees from one of Oregon's fine, and fairly priced, universities. Oregonian culture does make our agrarian goals a little easier, but the main goal of our move is psychological. We are purging ourselves of all of those things we didn't realize we held. We are rejecting the Puritanical (and ultimately Unitarian) ideals so ingrained in East Coast thinking. We are rejecting the race to see how much can be gotten. We are rejecting the idea that punching a clock and pushing buttons in an effort to help others consume makes you productive. We are rejecting the idea that good and monetarily profitable are the same thing. Instead we are embracing the holistic ideals of the Eastern church and look forward (if that is how to say it) to seeing how much we can manage to live without while working to produce tangible, and good, things.
It may seem silly, but *MY* ultimate goal is to be able to sit in silence for extended periods of time without anxiety. I want to understand what it means to "be still and know that I am God."


Bittersweet Feast

Today is the prelude of joy for the universe!
Let us anticipate the feast and celebrate with 
Gabriel is on his way to announce the glad 
to the Virgin;
He is ready to cry out in fear and wonder:
Rejoice, O Full of Grace, the Lord is with You!

I have to say that The Feast of the Annunciation is a little bittersweet for me. I love the miracle of human reproduction. It is fascinating and awe-inspiring. What makes it even more so is this very feast. God The Word chose this process to redeem his race of Image Bearers. Whenever a woman has a child she is taking part in that same process. So I find myself so excited to celebrate this feast for the very first time tonight. There is the sweet.
As I meditate on The Theotokos carrying not only Life but the Light of Light, True God of True God, the One who was in the beginning, I can't help but wonder what it was like. Women who have carried children past the first few days or weeks must have a taste of her wonder. And a very literal  bitterness enters here. I am jealous. I want to understand the Incarnation and the Theotokos in the way that any woman who has given birth can. What makes it all the more painful is that many women, especially my Protestant dear ones, don't care. Today is just Friday. They have the opportunity to stand in front of Christ and His Mother and have just a glimpse of one of the most important moments in human history, and it is just Friday.
It is a similar feeling to when I read Facebook statuses about how exhausting children are and how parents wish that kids would just nap, or that they could go out on a date without having to find a babysitter. Now I don't think these aren't real frustrations and legitimate emotions. I don't think that these friends don't love their children with all their hearts. I don't even think they should keep their frustrations to themselves. But, it stings a little. I want to respond "I would give my life and everything I have for a sleepless night with a colicky infant rather than with my own depression."
So as people's Facebook statuses start to pop up with everyones Friday night plans, and laments of lost pre-baby weekends I'm going to be a little bitter. Because not only don't I have the baby, but tonight I will go to church for the feast and not have the experience of knowing that feeling of life inside of me to deepen my worship.
I think as long as I suffer from infertility this will be the hardest day of the Church Year for me.


Smoke Filled Rooms

You will have to forgive me as my blog becomes "Diary of a Catechumen" for awhile. It is hard to talk about anything else right now. I have not felt this way about anything since I first met Brian. I am falling in love. I am falling in love with Liturgy, Scripture, God, and smoke-filled rooms. All things I thought I loved before, and yet have discovered in such a new and wonderful way.
I spent a lot of time in smoked filled rooms, back when you could smoke inside. Nothing was easy to see when the smoke got really thick. Faces were distorted and it changes the qualities of light. I can't explain it but it even seemed to make bass seem heavier.
I couldn't help but think of Nocturne, a goth club I use to go to, at Presanctified Liturgy on Wednesday night. Not that there is all that much in common between the two, except the smoke. I was watching The Royal Doors and the icons began to be less and less clear and the embroidery of the veil less sharp. I don't want to claim that I had any deep revelations about God or the nature of prayer. I did have a revelation about myself. It was like I looked back and saw how far I have come in the last 7 years.
I think I prefer my life now, as dull as it can seem when I am working yet another Friday night. If my world is going to seem hazy and far away I would rather it be because I am lost in a haze of prayer instead of cigarette smoke. And if my hair is going to smell I'd rather it be incense than tobacco.


Another Step On Our Road

About 6 weeks ago Brian and I were talking about our life. He had been filling out the paperwork to begin his postulancy in the Reformed Episcopal Church. We had a plan for our life and everything was working out. Then, after the Christmas break, Brian was getting so exhausted that he was falling asleep everywhere. It became very clear that he could not continue working and going to school full time. There was something that just was not right with the whole process.

At the same time we were deciding what to do about Brian’s school I started preparing a Bible Study on Esther for my Ladies’ Bible Study. I don’t know how well you know Esther, but there are 2 versions of the book. The Eastern & Oriental Orthodox Churches along with the Roman Catholic Church have a longer and more fleshed out version of the book. The Protestant church uses a version of the Old Testament based on a different text, which excludes some various sections. I decided to get my hands on an Orthodox Bible so that I could read the “extra” text. Abuna Raphael, a Coptic Orthodox priest we know, was generous enough to give us a copy of “The Orthodox Study Bible”.

As we looked at the Bible and discussed our lives and our future I was pressed with the thought that we needed to look at Orthodoxy again. We had been dissuaded easily just before our
wedding by Abuna Raphael. Our only real exposure had been in the Coptic Orthodox Church. We have had wonderful experiences with St. George’s in Norristown, but it was clearly not the place for us. First, the Oriental Orthodox Church, of which the Coptic Church is a part, is non-chalcedonian, and Brian and I do hold to the Council of Chalcedon. Second, the Coptic Church, like many branches of Orthodoxy, is primarily ethnic, meaning it is for Egyptians, in Arabic and/or Coptic.

So we turned to the one of the most useful gifts God has given modern man, Google. We did our research and discovered that there are branches of Orthodoxy that are less ethnically oriented. First there are the Antiochians, as in the Church at Antioch in the New Testament. While they are, or at least were until relatively recently, primarily Middle-Eastern Christians, they are more evangelical than most branches and have in the last 30 years been populated by more and more Protestant converts. Second, there is the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) which is the child, as it were, of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Russians brought Christianity to America via Alaska and the church they planted there spread throughout the continent and became the OCA. The Divine Liturgy is in English and the population of these churches is a melting pot of Protestant and other converts, people who were raised in ethnic Orthodox churches by immigrant parents and grandparents but who are thoroughly American themselves, and beautiful old ladies from “The Old Country” whichever country that might be.

We decided to take a week and talk with an Orthodox priest and see an Orthodox service in English. We went down to St Michael the Archangel Church in Wilmington, which is OCA. One week turned into two and three and four. I was in love with the Liturgy, and more in love with Christ than I think I have ever been. We began to read everything we could get our hands on.

We learned how the New Testament Church grew into the Eastern Orthodox Church and how those first century churches maintained the teaching of Christ and the Apostles for 2000 years.
We realized how much of our personal theology, the beliefs and impressions that we had gleaned from out own learning and study, were in line with the teachings of the Orthodox Church. We were in awe of how much of a shift we DIDN’T have to make.

Everyone warned us that we would need to learn to understand and speak in different language about God and theology. This was definitely true, the language is different, words don’t always mean the same thing in the East as they do in the West. But the things we thought were points of divergence were actually points of semantics. We had inadvertently, and we’ve come to believe by the leading of The Holy Spirit, become Orthodox without the Orthodox Church. There is no other way to say it, as cliche as it has become among Protestant converts to Orthodoxy, we had come home.

So that is where we are. We are leaving Anglicanism for Orthodoxy. I won’t say it wasn’t an easy decision to make, because praise the Lord, the actual decision seemed to make itself. But it hasn’t been an easy decision to carry out. We love our family in the Reformed Episcopal Church, and our actual families have been Protestant for generations. We learned last year that Brian’s great-great-etc-grandfather planted the first Anglican churches in this area. This is a departure from many things that we love and hold very dear.

We are sad to leave people who we love, and who love us, behind. But we are filled with so much joy to be joining ourselves to the church of the Apostles and Church Fathers. We hope and pray that no one is hurt by the path we are taking, but if we turned away from the path laid before us by The Holy Spirit then we would be putting those potential hurt feelings ahead of Christ, and we can’t do that.

Some people may have a lot of questions, and we would welcome any and all of them. Some people may have concerns, and we will do our best to answer them. Some people may have criticisms, and those we would ask you keep to yourself. If you are just curious about our journey and the answers we have found there is a book we can recommend. It is called “Becoming Orthodox” by Fr. Peter Gilquist and it answers Protestant questions about why one might choose to journey into Eastern Orthodoxy better than I ever could.