Due to George’s sister’s baby’s baptism being moved up a Sunday earlier, George flew up to Erie on Saturday, Dec. 27th, two days before our six kids and I began our drive up. We already had lodging reservations for our return trip that we did not want to cancel, and felt that extending our trip by driving out on Christmas Day in order to make the baptism would be too stressful on our bank account, Kronk the Bearded Dragon and our friends keeping him, on Pippin the Corgi and the dog boarders, and on ourselves for being gone from home for 15 days instead of 12. Our new plans meant that I would be the sole parent on the way up, but with our eldest being 20 and our second eldest being 18 and a tag-team driver in the eldest’s car, I felt we could manage ok.
It ended up being the most segregated trip we have ever taken. Our van died this past year and we have been going to various places in two cars since then. On this trip, audible books and other paraphernalia made car swapping inconvenient so the boys stayed in theirs and I and my two daughters stayed in ours. Such also were the hotel arrangements of course. We made good time to Jackson, Tenn, crossing the Mississippi River just after dusk. In the flood plains preceding the river in the waning light we saw very interesting patterns of migrating birds in various rippling waves across the sky. Besides the pine trees of East Texas and Western Arkansas, they were the ascetic highlight of the day. Memphis’ city lights reflecting in the moody Mississippi can be tacked on to the next day in Orthodox fashion. The next morning we began our ascent into Tennessee’s Appalachian foothills. We approached Cincinnati after dark that night. I believe that is the most beautiful city at night that I have ever seen. After clearing the hill hiding its proximity, the road signs warn of a steep descent. This descent is into the Ohio River that boarders the city on its southern side. So again you have light framed buildings reflected in a mighty river, but the hills are more dramatic and the bridge leads directly into a tunnel through the hill on the other side. Both cars called each other to express our state of awe.
We drove on through Columbus to get an early start to visit Maxim at the Greek Archdiocese’s Saint Gregory Palamas Monastery between Columbus and Cleveland. We awoke to a newly snow-covered landscape that stayed with us all through the week. We had arranged to be at the monastery for lunch as it was not far out of the way on New Years Eve before we reached our destination at George’s parents’ house in Erie. Father Joseph greeted us very warmly, then we met the scholarly and affable Maxim who was visiting through the holidays. We spoke of Father Seraphim Rose, whose spiritual child, Father Ambrose, had been connected with that monastery. I told him I had brought my book on Father Seraphim’s life by Hieromonk Damascene, and that I had felt there was some sort of connection of his with that place. During the meal he sat with the monks, and the kids and I had a table to ourselves while a monk read a Scripture and a Patristic teaching on Christ’s consubstantiality with the Father, if memory serves. They are on the “New Calendar” by order of the Archdiocese, so we had delicious chicken spaghetti and a green salad with beets and grapefruit. I enjoyed the peacefulness of that meal very much. After visiting a bit longer and being shown the Church, we headed north and east to complete our trip and be reunited with George.
We had a lovely time with George’s parents, brother, two sisters, their spouses, and the passel of cousins, as I have briefly described below. The next Sunday we visited the “Old Believer’s” Church of the Nativity in Erie. I had been somewhat prepared by reading Father John Whiteford’s posts on this same Church when he visited for a conference this past year. I did not have a white head covering so I wore the Russian made black one I bought on the Alaskan Cruise ship last year, and the girls wore other colorful ones that George had bought for me. We stood on the left side of the Church with the other ladies. Though it seemed very reverential, I regretted not being able to see any of the faces of those who stood in front of me. I also noted that there were female readers, that the female choir members outnumbered the men, and there was a woman, maybe the choir director with the men choir members on “their side”. But I can see how having such segregation would engender bonding among the women, and perhaps less attention seeking from men. I was however glad to be reunited with George at the end and to have someone to share the responsibility of our two youngests, who are girls.
Before the service, a kind gentleman allowed me to use his prayer book to help me along. We were there in time for The Hours which were read pretty quickly, so I was glad to read along to catch more of the words. Other than that the service was pretty much the same as our OCA service but with slightly different translations of some words. The chanting was not the four part harmony with Russian music as we have in our parish, but Znamenny Chant, which is “a Russian refinement of the Byzantine neumatic musical notation”. It sounded pretty foreign and a little “moany” to my untrained ears, but at one point midway through the service, a soloist sang in a very gentle, light way that caused the whole Church to listen with increased stillness and silence. It was a special moment.
After the service, Father Simon very warmly welcomed us and explained how the Old Rite had separated from the Church in Russia when Peter the Great introduced western innovations into some of the practices, including the adopting of the New Calendar. (By the way, they were still in the Nativity Season so it was nice not to leave Christmas so soon since we had to leave home so close after it.) He went on to say that some of the Old Believers during the time of the separation were too fanatical about form, but if you want to know how Orthodoxy was practiced from the Baptism of Russia in 988 until the 17th Century, they had preserved it. He showed us how they hold up different fingers when making the Sign of the Cross and the different style of his prayer rope which Father John depicts in his blog linked above. When I asked him to please return the prayer book to the kind gentleman, he said I could keep it. I treasure The Prayers in their words.
We had to pack and get on the road, so we didn’t stay for coffee hour, but related that we hoped to on our next visit which we agreed would not be soon enough. A family of eight makes a nice addition to a small Orthodox parish. I wonder sadly though how long we will be a family of eight with three of our sons off to college and then God knows where.
After a prolonged meal with George’s dear family and sad goodbyes, we departed south in the rain which by the time we reached West Virginia, had completely melted the snow. Farewell winter! We stayed in a town just over the border and next morning made our way to Holy Cross Hermitage , a Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia monastery for Vespers in Wayne, W.V. We called on the way over and were told that the monks eat at 4:30 before Vespers. We arrived at 5pm in order to get settled before the service and were greeted by Father Sergius who handles guest relations. We asked him to please go ahead and eat his dinner, but he insisted on giving us a tour anyway. Both monasteries were nicely rustic, but Holy Cross has a more secluded feel due to its isolation, closer hills, and taller trees. We were there two days before their Calendar Christmas, so we enjoyed an augmented Vespers and Matins with Nativity Hymns. We have their Nativity CD which is sung in English in Byzantine chant as are their services. It was nicer in person. Microphones somehow decrease my enjoyment of Orthodox music. The emphasis changes from a space being filled with praise, to the soloist themselves. I much prefer the former.During this service the women were separated from the men and wore head coverings as well. There is a nun who lives on the premises and another frequently visiting lady, so the girls and I followed what they did and made up the end of the line behind them to the venerate the icons and get blessed by their three priests. It was a lovely candlelight service and I had never been in such a line that venerated every icon around the whole Church. The one of St. John of San Francisco stood out to me the most.
After the service, Father Sergius gave us each a homemade cross from the Holy Land, a piece of frankincense – he had earlier showed us how it is made into incense – and a picture of the Port Arthur icon depicting how the Theotokos had intervened in the Russian war with Japan. We received a blessing from the Abbot, Father Seraphim, and went on our way to the lovely Pipestem State Park with their woodsy mountain cottage, which accomodates eight people, and stayed the next two rainy nights and a day before returning home again by way of Jackson, Tennessee. Another chronological sidestep, my third in this post I believe: after leaving Pipestem Wednesday morning covered by a clearing but windy sky, through two mountain tunnels, John Denver sent me on my way with Country Roads and Sweet Surrender.
So that is how I came to appreciate head coverings, standing with women, and Byzantine Chant.