Sunday, November 25, 2012

A Roman Catholic's Journey to Eastern Catholicism: Part 2 God's Voice Thunders!

After moving up to Ann Arbor I took a job working at a Catholic bookstore. I loved the work in part because of the people - both the other employees as well as the folks that would come into the store - and because of the books that surrounded me on a daily basis. I loved being able to pick up a book from the Catholic tradition and just browse around for tidbits of spiritual wisdom. I didn't realize it at the time, but one of the authors we carried, Fr. George Maloney, S.J., was a Russian Catholic priest who converted to Orthodoxy just prior to his death. Fr. Maloney was a strong voice for Eastern/Byzantine Catholic spirituality in the U.S. and worked tirelessly to join together Eastern Spirituality with the Catholic Charismatic Renewal. His writings are definitely worth reading as they are both tradition and a breath of fresh air. It was also while working at this bookstore that I picked up a copy of The Way of the Pilgrim, a book that has become all but required reading as an introduction into the spirituality of the Jesus Prayer.

While living in Ann Arbor I attended "Christ the King" Roman Catholic Church. This was the parish into which my wife had been baptized as a child, and where she had received her First Communion and been Confirmed. It was also the parish from which we were married. To this day I still consider "Christ the King" to be one of my spiritual homes. It was here that I learned to focus more on an experiential and personal relationship with God rather than a strictly intellectual relationship. All the studying I had done in college, all the "head-knowledge" I had gained through that study, had the chance to really sink in. I learned to allow what I had learned in college to penetrate from my head to my heart so that God became for me less of an intellectual idea and more of a living Reality; the only living Reality. In many ways I consider this the core of Catholic Charismatic spirituality, and it is a primary theme in Byzantine spirituality. Hans Urs von Balthasar once said that the most appropriate posture for the theologian was to kneel: "Theology ought to be done on one's knees," he is known as having said. This echoes the words of Evagrios Ponticus (I believe it was him) who said, "A theologian is one who prays truly, and if you pray truly you are a theologian." St. John of Krondstadt and other Orthodox saints are always talking about learning of God through experience, through encounter, through personal contact and relation. Books and head-knowledge are great, but they are a means, not the end. The end, the goal, is to encounter God, to experience His living presence within us, in our lives, in the world around us. Without this encounter we run the risk of reducing God to a syllogism and thus constructing an idol for ourselves.

There was another aspect of "Christ the King" that has always stuck with me. In their Perpetual Adoration chapel - a chapel that I frequented on my walks to and from work - there was a very large icon of Christ Enthroned. I was later to learn that this icon was actually a replica of an icon painted by Andrei Rublev, the great Russian iconographer whose most famous work is the icon of the Trinity, more properly called the "Hospitality of Abraham." I spent hours gazing at this icon in the Presence of the great "Icon of the West," the exposed Eucharist. There were times when I felt guilty for spending more time gazing at the icon rather than at the Sacrament, but after a talk with my spiritual father on the matter I felt more at ease. It was he who first told me that the exposed Sacrament is the great "Icon of the West." I needn't be concerned because one way or another I was in the Presence of Christ, whether mediated through the icon or through the great Icon.

For me, however, there was a great peace that came simply through gazing at that icon. I felt as though Christ were looking back at me with love and mercy as I looked at him enthroned in glory. The power and majesty of Christ, and the holy fear that that instills, that was depicted with the Cherubim and Seraphim soaring around and holding up Christ's throne was somehow softened by the loving gaze that poured forth from the icon, a gaze made all the more real by Christ's true Presence in front of me. I have since carried a holy card with that icon on it, and I keep one in my prayer books. If I am praying somewhere without icons today, I make sure to have that icon with me in order to feel Christ's presence and gaze again into those eyes. I suppose it was here as well as in that chapel in Austria that I learned a central theme in iconography and iconology, that icons themselves mediate a presence, a divine reality.

All of this was going on and I still had not attended my first Byzantine Divine Liturgy. Thinking back on it now it really does seem as though God was preparing me to receive the Byzantine tradition as my own, my home. By the time I experience my first Divine Liturgy, it felt completely natural and familiar. But we'll come to that in a moment.

I always looked forward to Saturdays while I was working at the bookstore. Nine times out of ten I could expect either Fr. Joseph Marquis or his identical twin brother, Richard, to show up. Frequently they would show up together, then I knew I was in for a fun afternoon. Fr. Joseph was a "convert" to Byzantine Catholicism from Roman Catholicism, and his brother Richard, a wonderful man, remains Roman Catholic, but with a deep and genuine love of the East. Week after week they would come in and ask me when I was going to come out to Fr. Joe's parish in Detroit, "Sacred Heart Ruthenian Catholic Church." Week after week my response was the same, "I'm waiting for my wife to come with me." Finally one Sunday, my wife being sick and in bed, I decided to head up to Detroit on my own. As I stepped inside "Sacred Heart" the same at-home feeling that I'd experienced in that chapel in Austria returned. I felt as though I'd been there before, as though I'd grown up there.

The deacon's son had grown up with my wife and was a life-long friend of hers. I sat next to him at my first Divine Liturgy and just sort of watched and mimicked what he did. For awhile I tried to follow along in the green book, but eventually gave up and just tried to absorb what was happening around me. When the deacon sung out, "Reverend father, give the blessing," and Fr. Joe responded, "Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever and forever," I was immediately enthralled and taken up into that Kingdom. The thing that has always stood out to me most was Fr. Joseph's voice; it was deep and booming, like the voice of God thundering out of the sanctuary. His voice was full of love and reverence, but also full of power. Although I'm sure Fr. Joseph doesn't have an angry bone in his body, his voice was one that would instill fear if it were ever raised in anger. Love and compassion, power and might; to me this voice always echoes in my head and makes me think of our heavenly Father.

I honestly remember little of the Liturgy itself from that day. I just remember feeling as though I were in another world, but a world that was somehow familiar, somehow home. Later that week the deacon's wife came into the bookstore and we fell into talking. It came out that I wasn't Byzantine at all and that that had been my first Divine Liturgy. She was shocked and said that watching me she thought I had grown up Byzantine, like I had been attending Divine Liturgy my entire life.

The next week I took a couple of friends up there with me. Again I was right at home. It took some time before I was finally able to get my wife to come, but she very much liked it when she finally made it there. For her, however, it took a bit more time for the Byzantine tradition to become home. It wasn't until we moved to the Washington, D.C. area that we together embraced the tradition in its Melkite expression.

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