Posted by: jamesthethickheaded | September 4, 2009

On Departures and Re-Entry into the Temple

As we depart the Temple, we dis-integrate and fragment as the Body of Christ. From our midst, we disperse in so many directions that comprehending the meaning and manner of how these fit together and in what order is simply unfathomable. Through prayer we hold on to what we have been given and continue to live within something of the vision – or even to deepen it, but without the corporeal reality that gives the opportunity, and allows our life, breath and dimension to inhabit what could otherwise be a dis-embodied experience of God (I think that’s why we’re supposed to do prostrations on our own). This is as true for us as Orthodox Christians departing on any Sunday after liturgy as it is for those whose departures began from a point that never graced the inside of our walls or the inside our faith, but whose whole experience of the Church, of Christ, and the Trinity… or whatever there tradition may be… lay elsewhere.  Yet for us, we have so many more benefits that it is simply unfair to compare or expect those from elsewhere to follow along our way. They sadly do not share our understanding of presence, our understanding of the Body, or in many cases, the fullness of the Trinity… and our understanding of worship from the heart.

In recent months, I have buried far more folks than I care to count. None have been Orthodox… and as much as I’d love to see the Orthodox process… I’ll allow time to work its way. I’d rather pray for anyone to have many, many years rather than memory eternal.

Yet the experience of grief draws us out as few other occasions when we, or someone close to us really lives into the moment in front of our eyes. There is much that we are given in this, and yet also much in which we participate in our own way – no matter our role. And as so often seems the case, our gifts lie more in terms of our presence rather than our thoughts, our words, or our expressions. So much of what we would wish to give, we don’t know how to give without invitation, or with the gentleness that enables a welcome. And though some choose an uprightness of expression, this seems even harder to manage and more still to appreciate, but at least sometimes it may be greeted as well said. And so wisdom lies more often than not in keeping the mouth shut, allowing the others to say there piece – especially the subjects of our visit, and instead we follow their lead. And we listen, we view, and we cherish these last moments we have together… even at our expense.. .for they may be all that may remain with us.

This is real life lived where it is sweetest – close to the bone in ways we might not otherwise find. Whether it is holding a hand, or hearing lips finally say what all have long known must be true, or just watching eyes close, a tear fall, a smile creep across a weary face, or sleep come and enfold our loved ones at the last. It is all for the good. It is hard, and our fears are real. And yet welcome or not… it is still for the good.  My sense is that the silence of the grave is not so strange where we have allowed its strangeness to fall beneath our experience together in life as we have the chance. And the strangeness of leaving more unsaid than said can be a virtue that brings us back together… if not in life, then in prayer. No, I wouldn’t suggest that this is by any means an immediate comfort… because it rings hollow at the time  for most. But as the years extend from those hard moments we can and do renew those severed bonds in this way… and at least for some of us new to Orthodoxy – it is something of a surprise and a refreshing one.

I suppose the constant sense of unfinished business feeds our desire, and our desire fuels an enlargement of our hearts, that we may be re-joined in spirit. For where there is true love – any one of its many kinds, there  seems always more to share… and something is impressed in ourselves of that person as a gift – even when at times it seems a burden – that compels us towards another meeting that no matter its nature, strengthens something of our relationship. We should want it to be one that honors the other rather than ourselves… but we don’t always manage that.

So through the course of these visits to other churches, graveyards, nursing homes and the like, I’d attest there is much that gives one pause, and sometimes, it takes a special effort to find the joy, the gift, and the honor of living in Christ that remains. There is the temptation to pass by unmoved because the folks were not or are not Orthodox – whether big or little “O”. There is the temptation to respond to the otherness by trumpeting  the wonders of our Church, to bemoan the heresies and outright unseemliness experienced, and more simply to wonder why these folks can’t realize they just need to be more like us… as if the people of Israel had never been challenged by their surroundings as well as the hidden wolves in their midst. No, I’ve done my bit there already… I won’t memorialize it here but rather repeat my earlier hard learned rule that the great difficulty of finding the truth  and becoming Orthodox is to bear it with the grace it really merits and to let it be a gift rather than a burden… both to ourselves and others… as a glorification of Christ. And in this, I have a long way to go before I am dead to my sins.

So if I may, I’d close with the note that after a particularly baffling funeral service that left many wondering at just how weird can it get, I was delighted to worship in my own Orthodox parish in a familiar liturgy celebrating our patron saint, St. Gregory the Great ( St. Gregory the Dialogist). As our pastor felt honoring his festival in the middle of Lent presented a conflict, we transferred our celebration of this alternate feast day. And so we celebrated the person of St. Gregory, his faith, his life of holiness, and our full bodied worship together. For me in particular and this evening especially of all, following a liturgy evolved over 1600 years, integrating scripture in readings and hymns together with well worn rubrics, worshipping in the fullness of the faith… body, mind and spirit… led to a purposed, and much needed re-integration. Moreover, our voices lifted up a chant of praise of the Trinity according to Gregory’s guiding hands and I shared a new sense of appreciation for the gifts we have in the richness of Orthodox worship. And with  the eucharist followed by veneration of St. G’s holy relics, we completed the perfect antidote to the day and my service renewed my life in the Church.

Thanks be to God for our lives in this Church, and for the lives of all those we have lost (or may yet soon lose)… here, there, and everywhere… and may God grant that their memory be eternal.


  1. Good thoughts as I embark on helping a friend of mine face his immanent death from cancer. He’s about decided to stop chemo and get on with dying. I pray I’ll be grounded enough to see him through.

  2. One of my favorite freshmen when I was a senior now lives nearby my godfather in Nashville. Then again, my buddy’s wife is in the hospital, he’s a local priest (Episcopalian) though I guess you’d say he’s part of “the resistance”. Has the opportunity. And I’m trying to encourage him. But I think these are things where we tread gently… he seems to think so, too. We hope we’ll get the chance… and may push around the envelope a bit… but maybe only feelers. He’s getting better for a pace… and I’ll be back come October if not before. If I can learn here… maybe can help my dad, too.

    Wish you luck with yours. As my dad says, “Middle age… caught between kids who don’t know which way is up on their own yet… and parents who seem to have lost their sense of it. You’re squeezed by those checking in, and those checking out.”

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