Heyr himna smiður – Hear, Heavenly Creator

For my first post back since the summer I thought I’d share this video that a friend just sent me.  Heavenly, otherworldly, and sublime.

The original poem was penned by Kolbeinn Tumason (1173–1208), one of the most powerful Icelandic chieftains of the 12th century, on his deathbed.  Here is the text:

Listen, smith of the heavens,

what the poet asks.

May softly come unto me

your mercy.

So I call on thee,

for you have created me.

I am thy slave,

you are my Lord.

 

God, I call on thee to heal me.

Remember me, mild one, 

Most we need thee.

Drive out, O king of suns,

generous and great,

every human sorrow

from the city of the heart.

 

Watch over me, mild one,

Most we need thee,

truly every moment

in the world of men.

send us, son of the virgin,

good causes,

all aid is from thee,

in my heart.

Of Anniversaries and Theatre Organs

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It turns out that eight days ago was the four year anniversary of my starting this blog.  Happy belated birthday, blog.  Granted, I’ve been rather inconsistent with posting over those four years, usually only posting when I’m traveling or doing something that I think my 3 readers might find interesting.  And thus, I am posting today because I was traveling again, this time to North Tonawanda, NY.  It was well worth the trip.

During the summer I’ll often work for my dad, which is what brought us to North Tonawanda for a festival.  Normally on these sorts of trips we work all day, outside, selling our wares and then go and collapse and do it again the next day.  Today was a little different since it started out with thunderstorms and pouring rain i.e., not looking very good for festival weather.  We ended up taking refuge from the rain at the Riviera Theatre which was, blessedly, a short sprint from where we were.  Walking into this theater is like stepping back to 1926, to all the glitz and gilding of the age of the great movies palaces that once dotted the U.S.  What completed the scene was the sound of the Mighty Wurlitzer organ roaring from the auditorium.

It turns out that North Tonawanda was the home of Wurlitzer Pipe Organ Co., which manufactured all the grand theater organs in movie palaces across the country, and throughout the world.  The company ceased production of organs in 1946, but the organ at the Riviera miraculously remained.  It was a showpiece, a masterpiece of the Wuriltzer craft that almost went the way of the dodo many times when the wrecking ball threatened to destroy this landmark.  However, in 1989, after years of uncertainty, the theater was purchased by the Niagara Frontier Theatre Organ Society and has been restored to its current beautiful state.  The organ was also restored and continues to be lovingly cared for by the members of the N.F.T.O.S., who had opened the theater today and arranged for organists to come and play throughout the day.  And that’s where I met them.

This was the first time I’d heard a theater organ in person.  Those of you who know me know my organ geekery knows no bounds, however I had never actually heard a theater organ except on recordings.  So I had a little moment when I walked into the theater and heard the behemoth instrument playing popular tunes (circa 1930).  I had another little moment when one of the society members took me on a tour of the organ and the building.  And then I had heart palpitations when the organist paused between songs and asked if I’d like to play.  Now, for those of you who have sat at an organ console of a big church, it can be a bit confusing.  But I’m at home at them.  This one was different, delightfully different.  Elements were similar (keyboards, pistons, stop tabs, etc.), but putting them together was a challenge I was glad I had a coach for.

One of the "house organists" playing during the afternoon.

One of the “house organists” playing during the afternoon who so graciously let me play

The organ is, perhaps, one of the most frequently played theater organs in the country; the organ is used before each and every event, concert, and show at the theater as well as on Tuesdays and Saturdays by the organ society members.  Did I mention I was invited back to try it out again tomorrow?  Oh, yes.  That is happening, and it will be glorious.  Who knows, perhaps I’ll have to make another pilgrimage out here on a Saturday in the future to take advantage of their very kind invitation.

Suffice it to say, this was just one of those things.  One of those crazy things.  One of those bells that now and then rings, it was just one of those things.

 

 

Reflections & an Apologia on the Western Rite

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It’s been too long since I’ve posted, and for that I apologize.  The last few weeks have been actioned packed, I participated in a summer course at St. Vladimir’s entitled Suffering and the Nature of Healing taught by Drs. Daniel and Jane Hinshaw, traveled back up to New England for the Antiochian Parish Life Conference, worked, and resumed a temporary role as organist at my old parish assignment for a feast day and Sunday.  That essentially brings me to today, spending some time with my mother and brother.  But I did want to offer a bit of a reflection on the last few weeks, for what it’s worth.

This past Sunday I played the organ at the parish I had been organist at up until last September when I began my time at St. Vladimir’s.  The last year has been tough for the parish; their pastor was transferred to a new parish and in the meantime they were ministered to by substitute priests and then by a wonderful deacon until this past week when they received a new priest.  Such times are significant in the life of the Church, and I was privileged to be a part of it, if only in a small way.  Their new priest was ordained last weekend at our Parish Life Conference, and his first Mass was this last Sunday.  There’s something so very exciting about a priest’s first liturgy, and this was no exception.

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St. Stephen Orthodox Church during Matins on Sunday

It was nearly a year since I had played a Western Rite Orthodox Mass.  I had played for the feastday during the week where the Vicar-General of the AWRV celebrated, but this was my first First Mass.  I had picked pieces by the French Baroque composer François Charpentier for the prelude and postlude, I had gone over the hymns and the Gregorian chant of the service.  But I was not prepared for the beauty of this first Mass of a new priest.  Sure, there were hiccups, but a serenity prevailed over the service that deeply affected me.  Without knowing quite how to explain it, I knew that this was a holy moment; it was an entrance into the Kingdom of Heaven (as I sat sweating on the organ bench).

I should back up a bit.  Some of you reading this might very well be unsure of, or even hostile, towards the Western Rite as practiced by the Antiochian Archdiocese.  I’ve been thinking about this for a while and I hope that, as flawed as it will be, I might offer an apology for the Western Rite for all of my Orthodox brothers and sisters.  Hang with me.

I was born into an Orthodox family.  My father grew up in the Church, my mother grew up Roman Catholic and then was received into the Orthodox Church before I was born.  When I was quite young we attended St. Paul Antiochian Orthodox Church in Emmaus, PA which was then pastored by Fr. John Khale, of blessed memory. Fr. John was an incredibly kind and holy man who greatly influenced my vocation to the priesthood from a very early age, through his love and care for my family and myself.  When we moved back to Massachusetts we began attending St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Lawrence MA, which has been my home parish ever since.

I was raised in the Byzantine Rite, loving the services and learning to chant; being taught how the services work and why they are the way they are.  There’s nothing I love more than hearing “The Noble Joseph” chanted on Holy and Great Friday, learning the prosomia, and learning to serve.  At the same time, an early memory I have was attending a Western Rite Mass at my home parish in Lawrence.  I remember going up to kneel on the solea, and the priest turned towards me with our Lord in his hands and I received Holy Communion.  I remember looking up at him in his golden vestments and seeing above him an icon of the the Mother of God with Christ, with her arms outstretched.

So, what gives?  Why am I so comfortable in the Western Rite when my last name is Lebanese and I grew up with the Byzantine Rite?  My only answer is that, well, something is right about it.

To most of us, the Western Rite is a foreign, unknown entity.  We don’t know what it is, we’ve never really experienced it, and, honestly, we have a lot of anti-Western baggage (and vice versa for those in the West looking East).  This is, I believe, what holds so many Orthodox back from experiencing, much less embracing, the Western Rite.  It’s just too foreign, it’s “not our tradition.”  But these things, when we separate them from our initial reactions, aren’t good enough reasons to dismiss the Western Rite.  I know it sounds snarky, but unless you’ve experienced this Rite for at least a month or more, unless you’ve lived in one of these parishes in the AWRV, unless you’ve seen what actually goes on there and met the people in these parishes, I don’t believe that you can therefore dismiss them as the weird cousins at the barbecue.  I am not trying to be contrarian or insulting to you, dear readers, I’m just trying to work it out myself.

I was asked to help with the music at a Western Rite parish in Massachusetts three years ago, and I still don’t think I’m qualified to “pronounce” on the Western Rite.  But the things I have seen, the services I have participated in, the people I have gotten to know; these things have confirmed for me over and over again that this rite is a rite of the Church and God meets us here.  The Church has always, up until relatively recently, had a multiplicity of rites, and to suggest that only the Liturgies of the East are valid, and Orthodox, is, to be perfectly honest, quite silly.  Fr. Alexander Schmemann agreed with this assertion, that there is nothing wrong with multiple rites as there were multiple rites from the early Church, but he did have a concern about adding another rite to an already fractured Church in America.  I don’t believe that his fears have come true because the Western Rite has fostered unity as well.

In my home diocese, the parishes that celebrate the Western Rite are an integral part of their diocese and the Archdiocese as a whole.  They’re not loners.  They celebrate rites and feasts that have been part of the Ordo for over fifty years, and they’ve been examined by commissions of Orthodox theologians, and have been blessed by patriarchates and synods.  Their parishioners join the Antiochian Women, and the Order of St. Ignatius.  Their devotion to our bishops is unparalleled, and the love they have for the gift of the Orthodox faith is so genuine.  I really can’t express in words my surety about this, but it is wonderful.  Sure, I’m just one person.  But so many others have experienced what I’ve experienced.  So why are we still afraid of the Western Rite?  That’s a question that will have to be answered person to person.

Be the start of change.  Don’t satisfy yourself with internet diatribes, go and visit one of our parishes yourself.  But don’t just visit once, because how well do you really know someone you’ve only visited once?  Go and pray with your brothers and sisters in Christ; they love the faith, they love you.  I know it’s not much, but I hope that at least my small witness to the Western Rite, as someone raised in the Church, might at least encourage you to reconsider.

Please remember, these are only my ill-formed thoughts.  May the Lord bless and keep you.

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Pilgrimages

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Now that I’ve been back in the States for a few days and have recovered (mostly) from jet-lag, I thought I’d continue writing about our pilgrimage, for pilgrimage it was.  One of the guys made a comment to me that he wished it was a little less pilgrimage and a little more vacation, and there were times when I felt the same way.  But, really, our time on Athos was the centerpiece of the trip, and the purpose of the trip.  We had some delightful time in Constantinople, Thessaloniki, and Athens, but Athos is where it’s at.  Who would have thought that a rugged peninsula populated by monks who ate no meat, fasted from dairy most of the time, worked and prayed for most of the day, would be so wonderful?  I mean, sure, I love going to church; it makes sense given my prospective line of work.  But Athos is more than a place to come as a pilgrim, this is a place where the ancient and modern come together.  It is the world’s oldest republic, filled with ancient artifacts, watched over by a mountain.  We saw a cross made for Justinian himself, Byzantine built towers, charters from the Tsars of Russia, an icon kept by Empress Theodora.  Talk about a vacation destination for history geeks.  And it’s more than that.

I’ve now realized that I’ve lost the thread of what I was saying, and I’m not really sure where I was going with it.  But, suffice it to say, Mt. Athos was incredible.  A combination of things I love: Byzantine chant, sunsets, churches, gardens, mountains, cooking, the sea, forests, four-part Slavic harmony, nerdy astronomy discussions.  The only thing missing was a continuo organ, but perhaps there’s one somewhere…  Actually, probably not.  Anyway, it’s a delightful place.  It’s sad that it’s so far away, but with the ease of modern travel perhaps I’ll be able to visit again sooner rather than later.

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One of the other aspects of the Holy Mountain that I so enjoyed was the people that you meet there.  And I don’t just mean bumping into friends that you didn’t know would be there (which happened to me twice), but the people who live there.  From the guy that made the fantastic spanikopita in Daphni, to the monk of 20 years who, before he was accepted as a novice, had to live in the caves around the peninsula for a summer to convince the monks he had what it took to stay.   It is such a crossroads, even the Patriarch of Moscow was there!  The world really is quite small.  In addition to my encounter with some friends, one of our members ran into a couple on the metro who were quite close with one of his close friends from college.  On the metro, heading into Athens.  Craziness.

Sitting on the balcony overlooking the sea while prepping veggies, or cleaning dishes, or drinking tea.  Little things, little events and experiences, that stand out in our time there are what have remained with me.  Seeing a monk fuss with a candle, or the charcoal embers flying around when a priest censed; hearing the abbot of Xenophontos chant, or holding ison for a monk during an all-night vigil.  And tonight, as I sit here typing, the smell of incense they used in the katholikon of Aghiou Pavlou is burning, bringing me back to the first night we were there; the light streaming in the windows as Fr. Evdokimos censed the church during the chanting of “Lord, I Call” at Vespers.  One of the monks told me that there are plenty of monks on Athos whose hearts are still back home, in the world.  He added that there are plenty of people in the world whose hearts are still on Athos.

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One of the icons in one of the many hallways of Aghiou Pavlou is of a vision one of the former abbots had when he was walking gathering firewood.  He saw a woman sitting on a rock on the beach, writing in one of three books.  When he approached her, he asked what she was writing.  The woman replied, “In this book I am writing the names of those who stay here.  In the second, those who visit time and time again yet go back into the world.  And in the third book, those who visit once and leave.”  After she said this, the abbot turned around to walk away and, after a few steps, realized who it was that he had just encountered: the Theotokos, the Ever-Virgin Mary.  I hope I’ll be in the second one, but at least I’m in the third for now.

Exploring Athens

 

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You’ll be glad to know that we all made it back to the U.S. safe and sound, after many hours in airports and on planes.  Now comes the time to decompress a little and reflect on the entirety of the trip, although before I do that I thought I should spend some time writing about our time in Athens and the trip back.  So here goes.

Athens is an interesting city, to say the least.  Like much of the rest of the world, Athens is a mix of ancient and modern; Athens is filled with ruins, souvlaki, churches, and tourists.  Walking down the street one will see people from all over the world marveling at the Acropolis, or buying cheap imitation statues of scantily clad ancient Greeks.  Wandering around the different neighborhoods it’s quite easy to go off the beaten track and explore the less touristy areas, where you can find the real life of Athens.  While I didn’t have a great experience on the Metro due to the theft of my phone, it is actually quite convenient to get around on.  For €4 euro you can get a 24 hour pass for the metro, which you can also use for the buses and other modes of transportation around the city.  So on Sunday after Liturgy at the beautiful church of St. George near Aghia Pareskevi metro stop, I grabbed my pass and my camera and wandered off to see the city.

St. George Church near Aghia Paraskevi stop on the Metro.

St. George Church near Aghia Paraskevi stop on the Metro.

Given that I’d yet to have lunch I thought my first stop should be somewhere to grab a gyro.  I mean, I couldn’t have gone to Greece and not had one!  Although, alas, that’s what ended up happening.  I looked up this one place that a friend had recommended, a place named Kostas (there are two of them, actually, but one is closed on Sundays) and wrote down the directions after checking on Google (Hail, Google), but when I got to where the directions said it should be it was nowhere to be found!  So I set off again around the area and ended up walking down to Monastiraki to the plethora of souvenir shops and overrated souvlaki stands.  No dice on Kostas.  So I wandered around some more, stopped to ask directions a couple times, and finally found it!  As luck would have it, it had just closed.  Foiled again, I made my way back to Monastiraki to look at all the shops (no, I didn’t buy anything) and get a Fanta.

Looking up one of the streets near Monastiraki toward the Acropolis

Looking up one of the streets near Monastiraki toward the Acropolis.  Ah, a Starbucks.

After a couple hours of walking I realized with a start that I only had about a little over an hour before I had to be back at the Acropolis metro station to meet the rest of the guys and head back to meet Fr. Stephanos at his church and then to dinner with him.  So with a burst of determination (and surprising speed) I grabbed a train to the Acropolis stop and started the walk up to the top.  What I didn’t realize is that the entrance to the Acropolis is actually quite a ways from the metro stop, so picking up speed I made my way to the ticket booth near the entrance while enjoying the music of a fantastic trio (saxophone, tuba, and hammer dulcimer; it’s as weird yet awesome as it sounds).  Once at the entrance I made the climb up to the Acropolis and walked around the Parthenon and other buildings.

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At dinner a few of the guys made the same comment about being up there: while the ruins are incredible, the views are even more so.  There’s no way to capture how stunning the city looks from the top of the Acropolis.  The sun reflecting off the roofs of tens of thousands of buildings, glinting off domes of churches.  Looking out you can see the Areopagus where St. Paul preached to the Athenians, you can see the ancient theatres and the columns standing like sentinels around the city.  It’s just breathtaking.

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Well, that’s all for now because I need to run a few errands and grab some lunch.  I’m debating between a burger or some Chinese food (two things I was craving toward the end of our trip…).  I’ll be posting more about our time in Athens, as well as the wild ride back to the U.S.  More pictures to come as well!

Away We Go

The helicopter pad at Aghia Anna Skete on Mt. Athos.

Just a quick post to prove I’m still alive, even without a phone.  It’s oddly freeing, although I would have come in really handy a couple times today when I went in search of the perfect gyro (I failed in that quest).  But we had a good day otherwise, with a beautiful Liturgy at the Church of St. George near the Aghia Pareskevi metro stop.  I wandered around Athens for about three hours, going to Monasteraki and other areas before heading to the Acropolis in the late afternoon.  One mini-reflection that a few of us shared is as awesome as the ruins of the Parthenon and other buildings are, the views are the winner of the Acropolis; just stunning.  In the evening we headed back out to the parish for dinner with the parish priest (and respected academic), Fr. Stefanos Alexopoulos, who took us to a fantastic restaurant for a farewell dinner.  It was funny meeting him because it took me a while to make the connection between him and the Stefanos Alexopoulos whose articles I’ve read in the past.  Very nice to meet him in person, he and his parishioners were so very welcoming and provided a great end to our stay in Greece and our experience of Orthodoxy here.

Alas, my computer’s battery is about to die and I seem to have misplaced my outlet converter so it looks like I won’t be able to post till I get back to NY tomorrow, but be assured that there will be many more posts coming with details of the trip, as well as many more photos.  Because of my battery life problem I wasn’t able to download the pictures I took from my camera so those will probably have to wait until NY as well.

Please keep us in your prayers as we make the long trek back to St. Vladimir’s Seminary!

Athens: Pinnacle of Ancient Civilization and Modern Den of Thieves

We arrived in Athens without too much fuss, or so it seemed.  Turns out that one of the pieces of luggage was lost without a trace during the really, really short flight to Athens from Thessaloniki, but, by the grace of God, it wound up here at the hotel tonight when we got back from dinner.  And there was much rejoicing.

However, my cell phone was stolen while getting of the metro at Monasteraki stop.  I know exactly who did it, a shifty -looking bald guy in a polo shirt who bumped into me on the way out.  Oh well, at least my money and passport were unharmed.  I was pretty upset about it when it happened, and am still quite irritated, but it’s only a phone.  I guess that’s one of the hazards of traveling in foreign (and home) lands.  The funny thing is that I’d been reminding myself to keep everything important out of my pockets while in Athens because I knew just how prevalent pick-pocketing is on the metro, but in the rush of getting off of the stop with my bag I was the perfect target.  About five minutes later one of our group, the good Sir Gregory, realized a man was rooting around in his pocket looking for valuables.  Sir Gregory naturally gave him one of those glares that the English are so good at giving.  But it was telling.

Anyway, I’m absolutely exhausted and am going to head to bed, but I wanted to post to let all of you that have my number know to no longer try and contact it.  Since I wasn’t able to do it, my dad contacted the phone company and shut it down from afar.  God-willing no sensitive information was gathered by the nefarious pick-pocket, and I changed all my passwords on email and things.  May God have mercy on whoever took it, I hope they needed it more than I did.

We had dinner a great little restaurant near our hotel.  The hostess was so kind, the lamb was delicious (as was the loukaniko and saganaki dish), as was everything else.  Because of the loss of my phone the brethren were most generous in helping sooth my bruised pride.  World traveler, not so much.  But it was a very enjoyable meal and a very welcoming place.  If you ever find yourself near the Acropolis Select, it’s right down the street.  Rather new, and it’s all made right there.  We certainly enjoyed eating in the courtyard and then meandering for a beer near the Acropolis.

Tomorrow we’ll be going to Liturgy at the parish of a friend of Fr. Alex and then have the afternoon free to visit the Acropolis and other sites of interest.  I’m looking forward to seeing where St. Paul preached, especially.  Hope you’ve all been well, wherever you are.  I certainly miss Aghiou Pavlou and the fathers there, I pray that God will bring me back there sooner rather than later.

Hope your day was better than mine!  Please keep us in your prayers, I’m definitely looking forward to being back in the States, although I’m so very thankful for the experience we’ve had thus far.