Thursday, April 7, 2011

Special Guests

"When God so wishes," said the bodiless angel, "the order of nature is overcome and what is beyond man comes to pass." (from Lord, I Have Cried, Vespers for The Annunciation)

I wanted to wear pink this morning. It's a small detail - I just really felt like wearing pink. But we all wear blue on feasts of the Theotokos, and not wanting to stand out like Jezebel at the debutante ball, I put on my blue dress. If you are Orthodox, you will understand.

This morning, we celebrated the Feast of the Annunciation at the Old Cathedral - and I still wasn't sure which zadostoinik we were going to sing when I got there. (A zadostoinik is the hymn sung on a feast in place of It Is Truly Meet - Dostoino Yest/Axion Estin). We would normally sing the one from the canon, but I didn't have music for the refrains. I had something in Slavonic - which nobody else would have been able to read.

We had some Greek pilgrims visiting us, and we had a special guest - a Reader on loan from a Greek church in Oregon. I always go for maximal utility - I wouldn't let someone who could really sing but didn't know our music just stand there with nothing to do. So, I asked him if he would sing "what we sing in place of Truly Meet". He found the music on his iPhone, and when the time came, he sang a beautiful version of "It Is Truly Meet". Well, it isn't what we would have sung in the Russian church - but that's OK.

During lunch, one of the pilgrims, Pres. Maria, said that she had a myrrh streaming icon of St. Anna. It is a photocopy of a picture of the Myrrh Streaming icon of St. Anna with the Theotokos that is from Philadelphia. She had it with her. She told us that when we sang Truly Meet, she could smell the myrrh begin to stream from her icon - so she took it out of her bag to show us.

Reality check - there are people who claim that myrrh streaming icons are a man made phenomenon - that wood mounted icons (or those painted on wood) are tampered with and infused with oil to make it look like the icons are streaming forth myrrh. For those people, I would like to emphasize that THIS ICON WAS A SHEET OF PAPER, kept in a wooden case with a glass lid. You can't infuse paper with oil. It will completely disintegrate. The myrrh streams as tears from the faces of St. Anna and the Theotokos - it isn't a pool that just spreads.

I told Pres. Maria that I had the music for the whole molieben and akathist service - all set in western notation - from the time that the original icon had come to our parish last year, and I offered to send her a copy. Our priest had planned to do a molieben service to St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco for the pilgrims who had come to SF specifically to venerate his relics. Since the icon was streaming myrrh, they decided to include St. Anna in the molieben. I suggested that we could do the whole Akathist - we had everything ready to go . I should also mention that the other pilgrims were from the church in Roseville where there are actual relics of Sts. Joachim and Anna. I really should have gone with the pink dress.

I have one akathist service ready to sing - it's the one for the icon of St. Anna.

While we were getting everything ready to do the service, the presvytera came up to me with a picture and said that St. Anna had let her know that I didn't have one - and this one was mine. As I took it from her, she said "smell - it's starting to smell - can you smell it" I said no - and to be honest, after being visited by the Hawaiian Iveron icon while it was gushing myrrh, I was expecting to be blown away and overwhelmed by intense fragrance. Pres. Maria said to just relax and I would notice. And after a few seconds, I could smell the fragrance - but it wasn't what I was expecting. This was more subtle and kind of spicy, kind of like honey and cinnamon. It smelled more like the relic of St. George someone showed me once.

While I was holding the picture of the picture of the picture of the original icon, it began to give off warmth. If you have never been to the Old Cathedral, you must understand that it's the coldest church ever. It's 10-15 degrees colder in the church than it is outside. We regularly see our breath when we sing. We wear coats and put pants on under our skirts. I gave the choir wool gloves for Nativity - it's freezing in there. Choristers jockey for position under the incandescent light bulb on kliros because it's warmer there. So - if something is giving off heat- it's very noticeable.

And I stood there, with numb feet, with a 4 x 6 photo resting in the palms of my hands that was actually getting hot, and I was thinking "What have I done to deserve this". The presvytera said that she could see that it was starting to produce myrrh. I did not see the myrrh - although that pretty much would have been the coolest thing ever - it was mesmerizing nonetheless . . . and warm - like when I've had my laptop on my lap too long.

I know that it's out of place, liturgically speaking - but what have I done to deserve this? I'm not sure I want to know.

As we sang the service they had never heard sung before, some of the pilgrims were crying. I had to leave just as soon as we were done because I was about an hour late to pick up my kids from school - which the school was very nice about, BTW - and they didn't ask why I was "unavoidably detained". I didn't get a chance to say good bye to the presvytera or the other pilgrims.

I have the picture on the table next to my bed now - it's neither warm nor fragrant, but holding it makes my heart melt. I think I am going to have to get a frame for it from someplace other than the Dollar Tree.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Strangers in a Strange Land

My kids are at Vacation Bible School at the big fundamentalist church in town this week. We started going 7 years ago, 2 years before we were Chrismated. And the idea of not going to this extravaganza is incredibly unpopular in my house. Weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. Every year, I wait for the phone call to come get them and the decree that we can never go back because we are just too different. My son told them they had a bad translation of the Bible last year - and he was probably just as tactful as he usually is. When I went to pick them up yesterday, my daughter came over to me during prayer time and said, "These prayers don't make any sense. They're just making stuff up as they go along. I'm not doing this." All right then.

It looks like the theme this year is the story of Moses, although the official theme is Cajun: Crocodile Dock. So far, this has been a great way to learn more about the Theotokos . . . at home. Yesterday, the kids spent the day learning about the Burning Bush (God is with us!). And when they got home, we talked about how the burning bush prefigured the Theotokos. Catherine has taken a picture of the burning bush from St. Catherine's monastery with her today to show to her crew. She also took her icon of St. Catherine that has a piece of the rock from the site of the burning bush. I asked her what an icon was for before she left so she would know what to say, just in case that whole idolatry thing came up. How do you prime an 8 year old for a theological debate with fundamentalists? It's not that fundamentalists don't understand veneration - it's that they don't understand worship and therefore, the distinction between the two is unclear. Maybe if we got them to understand that we don't do rock concerts for icons it would be a real a-ha moment.

Last night, we read ahead a little bit for the topic for today: the plagues of Egypt. Phoebe's kindergarten book says that "for some reason" Pharaoh decided to ignore Moses. "For some reason" my left foot. Over breakfast, we talked about how the crossing of the Red Sea on dry land also prefigured the Theotokos, and is the topic of the first Ode of Canons. We will have to see what the topic for tomorrow is.

Can we get a Russian Orthodox Vacation Bible School - PLEASE????? I've heard that Russians have children too, although it was just in a song by Sting in the '80s.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

The Dark Side of Communism

Leo's 6th grade class briefly studied Classical Greece this spring. On the day they studied democracy, the class voted on what would be the best type of government for their make-believe city state. The class overwhelmingly chose Marxism. Leo pointed out that they couldn't be Marxist because there wouldn't be a Marx for like 2000 more years . . . besides, Marxism is the worst form of government you could possibly have. This must have gone on for a while, because Leo's teacher invited him to present a report to his class on why communism wasn't the best form of government.

Leo gave his report today.

He started out by asking people to tell him how much allowance they got. Then he divided the total by the number of people in the class, and told them that everyone would be getting an equal share. From each according to his means. To each according to his needs. This didn't go over so well, because it IS fair.

Then Leo asked for volunteers, and formed a labor brigade to do dangerous jobs like logging in Siberia, coal mining, sewage treatment. The next round of volunteers were forced into the army whether they were Pacifists or not. We shoot deserters.

Leo discussed the various crimes against humanity perpetrated by communist regimes, citing numbers of deaths according to The Little Black Book of Communism. He asked his classmates if they had a religion. About a third said they did. Then he told them that in the communist regime of Pol Pot in Cambodia, all of them would have been killed - and then the kids who could read - and then the kids with glasses. So far, there weren't going to be a lot people left in class to vote on a form of government.

We had helped Leo prepare a poster with graphs showing the number of deaths per year ((by hundred thousands) in the gulags of the former Soviet Union, and one of the pictures on his poster showed a sea of prisoners for as far as the eye could see, made up of Russian emigres who were captured by the Soviets after WWII and then executed as enemies of the state. A graph is completely impersonal, but a picture of thousands of people really brings the point home. Leo also had one of those famous pictures of mounds of skeletons from the Cambodia killing fields.
Then Leo discussed government price controls. If the government decideds that you can't charge more than a certain amount for your goods, and that means that you lose money on every transaction - there isn't a lot of incentive to produce goods. He had pictures of a bread line in the Soviet Union from early in the 20th century, pointing out the armed members of the cavalry guarding the line - and another picture of a bread line in the Soviet Union from 1990. He also had a picture of empty shelves in the stores in a major Russian city. I visited the Soviet Union in 1991, and there were lines for bread, guarded by members of the military who carried machine guns - and the shelves were bare in other stores.

Leo also talked about the environmental degredation in communist countries. Everything is done for the good of the state. Anyone who speaks out against the good of the state is a criminal. So, when the soviets diverted 2 rivers from flowing into the Aral Sea - there weren't protests. Now the Aral Sea is a series of salt water lakes.

He didn't have time to get into collective farming, because, being the eldest of 6, he really wanted to discuss the ramifications of China's one child policy. The elderly population is going to dwarf the number of youths contrbuting to their social welfare system in very few years. In some provinces, 130 boys are born for every 100 girls - thanks to liberal abortion policies that allow the abortion of a fetus simply because of its gender. And if that isn't enough, he also had a graph that showed the rate of female infant mortality - on top of the birth rate discrepency. China's interference in the family structure of its citizens is leading to some very awkward social problems.

Leo said that he was able to change many of the students' minds about how wonderful communism was, but there were still a few kids who thought that capitalism was evil. His teacher thanks him for sharing all of this information. There are 2 days of school left - so I doubt we will be getting in too much trouble.

When Leo was about 4, he asked us what communism was. His dad explained that everybody liked to play with toys, but some people had lots of toys and others had very few. Now, people might have had few toys because they just never had many to begin with or maybe they broke their toys or left them behind and were careless. And then, some of the people with lots of toys had received them as gifts, but others had saved birthday money or earned their own money to buy them. Under communism, the government could take away your brand new toy and give it to kid who had broken all his toys because that would mean that people would have the same amount of toys. Leo got really upset and said, "That's just too much sharing."

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Mane Complaint

A note to school on the occasion of bribing my eldest daughter to have someone who knows what they are doing fix the hack job I did on her hair when we had lice.  That's right, I have 6 kids with lice and 57 loads of laundry to take care of and my greatest concern in the whole wide world is: how to get this kid to let me get someone to make her look pretty.  She drives a hard bargain, what can I say.  She turned down a manicure and trip to Chuck E. Cheese.  After an hour, she finally decided that it was time for her to have the upper hand and get out of drama class once and for all.  I happily complied - besides this was free.

Dear Miss Fast,

In order to get Catherine to agree to have her hair styled by a professional, I agreed to write you this note listing her completely reasonable demands.

First of all, Catherine would like to be excused from drama class for the rest of eternity. We feel that she has mastered the art of drama and is quite dramatic enough already. Now, if you have a drama lessening program, we would definitely be interested in that. If Catherine gets to skip drama, she can focus her impressive complaining skills more keenly on other important issues such as excessive homework, yucky lunches, and icky boys.

Which leads nicely to her next request, she would like to sit in the corner all by herself because she just hates people in general, some more than others, of course, but decorum prevents me from listing their names (plus I just quit listening after the first 5 because they all blur together, and I can't keep them straight). She would especially like to avoid contact with all boys, and as her mother, I would like to encourage that sentiment for the next 15 years or so.

I made no promises about how these requests would be handled. That is entirely up to you. I only promised to write them down.

Thank you so much,


So Catherine proudly presented this note to her teacher, who sent me email because she was confused.  Catherine was under the impression that this note was a serious power play by me to get her out of drama.  I just told the teacher to do whatever she thought best.  I had what I wanted - a clean, professional hair cut.   Besides, it would be better if Catherine didn't ruin the performance for the other kids who were enjoying themselves.

It turns out that the drama production consisted of the kids doing the zombie dance from the Michael Jackson Thriller video.  My dislike for all things associated with Michael Jackson  almost  extends to the ABC's.  This drama teacher better be a volunteer.  What girl wants to dance like a zombie?    Eeeeew.   I'm surpised Catherine didn't organize a full scale revolt - but I guess that would have had to involve talking to people. 

The Very Little Brown Church

We went to Vigil on Saturday night.  It lasted over 3 hours.   Before we left, Alexander - the 6 year old - asked both me and our priest if he could build a church.   He received blessings from both of us for this undertaking.  He wanted a small place where he could be by himself to pray - like the laundry room is a great hub of activity or something.  

He is going to build his church out of cardboard and duct tape - his usual building materials.   I'm supposed to print icons out from the internet to tape to the walls of the interior.  When we got home from liturgy he took 4 candle stubs a $5 bill out of his pockets.   HE  ALREADY HAS A BUILDING FUND.

Maybe I should have frisked him for incense.

Alexander asked his dad for help with construction, and got the usual reply - you have to have a building plan in place before we start.  Permits - shmermits.   So, he sat down and drew up a plan for a T shaped church with the "alter" off to the side, and a really big place for the "quire" to sing, candle stand positions clearly marked.

So, being the unfun, art history buff that I am, I tried to explain to him that churches need to follow one a of a couple of floor plans (and one of them happens to be square - the box in its natural state!).  There are rules about these things.  I tried to look up some floor plans on the internet, but all I could really find was Hagia Sohpia, and we don't have that much duct tape.  We discussed how our church is laid out, and the importance of arranging the space so that 2 choirs could sing antiphonally.  You have to have a narthex, or there won't be anyplace to spit during Baptisms - you know, the really important stuff.

Alexander made a new floor plan - this time in accordance with the usual rules, except that he had the "northex" on the north side of the structure.  I guess that makes sense.  As does the space marked "rest of the church".  Kinda sums it all up.

Then I asked him to whom his church would be dedicated.  He looked a little confused, and answered "Um . . . God?"  Yes, but usually churches are a little more specifically named.  "Oh yeah, Orthodox".  Great, but we go to a church dedicated to the Mother of God - who should your church be dedicated to.  He's thinking about it.  My husband is thinking that candle stands aren't such a good idea in a cardboard church.

I'm just hoping he doesn't want onion domes.  

The Meeting of Our Lord or Take Your Kid to Church Day

Today is the rare combination of 2 feasts - 

The Meeting of the Lord (fixed date)

The Sunday of the Prodigal Son  (moveable date)

If you look closely, The Meeting of the Lord falls on February 2.  On the Julian Calendar, today is February 2nd.  We are on the old calendar, which is 13 days behind the civil (Gregorian) calendar.  So, it's Feburary 2nd for us too, despite the fact that everywhere else in the world, except Ethiopia, it's February 15th.  In ROCOR, we don't let some 16th century Pope tell us what to do.  The sun - what a whacky way to determine the date.  Anyway, the old calendar, beside being the Orthodoxically correct, is a procrastinator's dream.  You haven't sent your Christmas cards out late until even after January 1st, and it makes April Fool's day extra fun because NOBODY is expecting it on April 14th.

Today is the day that the Theotokos took her 40 day old Son to the Temple to be dedicated to God, following Jewish law.   It is also the day that the Prodigal Son returned to his father's house. So what you get is, the mother bringing the child to the temple and the Father receiving him with open arms.  Very circular.  Very complete.  Very cool.

And here is how my children marked the occasion.  When we got to church, Roman - the 3 year old - absolutely insisted that he wanted to serve at the altar.   I said that maybe he could come sing with me later instead.  He's as well behaved as your average 3 year old.  I left Roman with the  babysitters and went to sing.   As soon as I was gone, the older boys took Roman to the vestry and found vestments for him.    

Imagine my surprise when at the end of the Great Litany, all of my boys appeared on the opposite side of the church in vestments looking very proud of themselves.  Roman was so happy that he was literally jumping for joy.  He came running up the ambo and stood on the stool next to my music stand.  He gave me a big hug and sang a little "Blagoslovi dushe moya Gospoda", hugged me again and ran out the side door to take the back dor to that altar.  Well, what do you do at that point?  It's not like I can go get him out of the altar.  He came back a few minutes later, out of St. Michael's door, without any vestments.  He sang a litte of the Second Antiphon and then went back to the babysitters.  Busy feast day for a little guy.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Forefeast of Theophany, or Nightmare in the Nave

I think I had my first choir directing experience today.   I don't know if it counts.  I hope not.  

The choir director had to leave liturgy early.  The other choir director was sick.   I can read music, but I had no implement with which to actually obtain a pitch.  Out of the 5 people singing (or not), only 2 of us could read music.  None of us had rehearsed.  Someone behind me was pulling a Wigam (see episode of the Simpsons in which Chief Wigam explains that he's been making the police dogs extra angry by singing off key "ma mi ma moe, ma moe ma me").  

The melody was in the alto line.   I had no alto.  I foolishly opted to sing alto, thus confusing everyone around me - 4 basses and a substitute alto who didn't know the music.  I think we came close to producing something resembling a chord about half way through the Glory/Both Now of the Great Blessing of the Waters.  The most musical moment of my brief tenure - my 2 year old knocked something (probably Holy and Expensive) off the wall, which made a loud crashing sound.

I need to figure out what note the dial tone on my phone is.