The Classic Story of a Family's Pilgrimage into the Orthodox Church
Veiled in the smoke of incense, the Eastern Orthodox Church has long been an enigma to the Western world. Yet, as Frederica Mathewes-Green discovered, it is a vital, living faith, rich in ritual beauty and steadfast in integrity. Utilizing the framework of the Orthodox calendar, Mathewes-Green chronicles a year in the life of her small Orthodox mission church, eloquently illustrating the joys and blessings an ancient faith can bring to the worshipers of today.
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About the Author
Frederica Mathewes-Green is the author of numerous books about early and Eastern Christian spirituality and the Orthodox Church. She is a columnist for Beliefnet.com, a commentator on National Public Radio, and writes movie reviews for National Review Online. She and her husband, Fr. Gregory Mathewes-Green, have three children and five grandchildren.
Read an Excerpt
Preparing for Lent
February 11, 1995
St. Blaise the Martyr
Week Of The Publican And The Pharisee
How to Make a Church
How to Make a Church: My husband, Gary, was an Episcopal priest for fifteen years. Believing that that great hulk of a denomination was about to shipwreck in apostasy, repealing the creed and condoning immorality, he led us out -- myself, our daughter, and our two sons. A handful of others came with us from our Episcopal parish: a widow; a young woman whose husband doesn't attend church; a pair of newlyweds; a couple with four young children, the oldest son autistic; a couple with two teens, the dad in a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis.
At the end of January 1993, we were chrismated together into the Orthodox Church, and my husband was ordained a priest. (Chrismation is the initiation rite that brings previously baptized Christians into the Orthodox Church; it's analogous to confirmation in the West.) Two weeks later -- Valentine's Day -- we celebrated our first Divine Liturgy in the echoing front parlor of an empty old house. We were Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Mission of Catonsville, Maryland. There were more letters in our name than there were of us.
How to Make a Church: Basil sized up the room and began pointing. A massive, scarred oak library table stood in the middle of the floor, ringed with bulky crate-built wooden chairs. Residue from the room's weekday tenants -- adults with psychiatric disabilities still littered the tabletop: dried glue, glitter, smears of red elementary school paint,spattered coffee stains. Another table, a long folding contraption with a ruined top, had been set up toward the back and surrounded by orange plastic chairs with tubular chrome legs. A jumble of other chairs and boxes dotted the floor.
"Okay," Basil said, waving a hand. "All of this hasta go.
Holy Cross Mission had quickly outgrown our parlor and subsequently had moved to this space, the home of ReVisions, an adult day care program. The building itself is lovely, an 1878 red brick schoolhouse with a high white vaulted ceiling, beam braced, here in the assembly room. High in the arch of the wall behind the altarplace is a large window made of eighty square mullioned panes. The view through the old glass is wavery, though a few crisp replacement panes interrupt almost rudely. Through the seasons I can see the heights of the spreading tree next door change colors, shed leaves, then burst with the "sticky little leaves" of spring (I think of my tormented co-religionist, Ivan Karamazov). Birds shoot past without warning, softly distorted by the old glass as if swimming underwater, then snapped into focus by a new pane.
The upper twelve feet of the room are lovely, but at eye level it is cluttered with bulletin boards, mismatched shelves, Valentine's Day decor, cubbyholes, and a defunct aquarium. There is a strong scent of industrial cleaner. I stand on the left with the choir every Sunday and look across the room at a Parcheesi game and a sewing machine on the top of a tinny metal cabinet. They never move.
The visual story of this room, descending from the airy ceiling and window, through the jumble, ends with the floor: rubber linoleum squares in bright streaky green. The only eye-level touches with any charm are the aged slate blackboards, devouring large sections of wall and framed in wood. Some of these are set with what must have been the controller for a primitive central-heatand-air device: a big black disk of iron, topped with a big black lever. The lever swings from left to right, allowing two alternatives: "WARM AIR" or "COLD AIR."
All of this hasta go, or at least as much as is portable. Basil heads the Temple Set-Up/Take-Down team, and he's a natural takecharge guy: about sixty, with sharp black eyes, a Greek nose, and the pear-shaped figure that must inevitably come to a short-order cook. His team today includes Frank, a retired hotel exec who was chrismated with his wife Jeanne just a few months ago. Frank is a small mountain of a guy, with the feigned gruffness of a city-beat cop; simultaneously large and compact, he looks like somebody pushed him together with a snow plow. Jeanne is fluffy and goodnatured, and I call her Smiling Jeanne to differentiate from Hardworking Jeannie, the parish workhorse.
The other guy on the team, Jay, is one of the original band of converts and came with Heidi and the four kids. It is his son, Jared, who is autistic. Jay looks worn lately. Jared at nine is getting big and pretty strong, and though he's usually quiet he still sometimes interrupts the liturgy with a scream or sudden lunge. I try to take those moments as gifts; they serve to remind me of how little I comprehend of the things of God. The distance from Jared's understanding to mine is short compared to the distance from me to the mind of our Holy God. I take communion as lost in incomprehension as Jared; all I can do is receive.
While Jay and Basil shift the tables and chairs, my husband and Frank pull out from the corner a wooden cube, about a yard on each side, and turn it around. This is our altar. "You want to empty all this out first," Gary tells Frank, "and then when it's unloaded and light we can put it in place.' Inside the back of the altar the shelves are stocked with a brass blessing cross, brass candlesticks, glass cruets, tall candles, votive candles, and a silver-covered Gospel book. This new one replaced our original Gospel book, which had been given to us secondhand by another parish when we first started out. "I'm afraid it looks pretty worn," the priest had apologized, "because it's been kissed so much.' Orthodox kiss a lot.Facing East. Copyright © by Frederica Mathewes-Gre. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.