|Budding icon wall in our kitchen <3|
Since we have just over a week before the September 1st start to our new liturgical year, I thought I would dedicate this week's post to my introduction to the Byzantine rite and how I got started on this spiritual journey. The spark didn't happen all that long ago, which is why I'm looking forward to settling in for lots of good Catholic Nerd learning and prayer this upcoming year, but I thought it would be fun to share how this all got started.
A year or so ago, my good friend Allison and her family became members of a Catholic church that celebrates the liturgy in the Byzantine rite. They had been attending Divine Liturgy at this Ukrainian Catholic Church near their home for some time prior, and their journey caused me to become interested in learning about Eastern liturgies and traditions. After a solid 9 months of innocently collecting icons, beeswax candles, and Eastern prayer books, I figured there was something more to all of this than a passing curiosity. I was clearly drawn to this type of spirituality, so I figured it would be interesting to actually attend a Byzantine rite Divine Liturgy.
I did a little research, and found 3 Byzantine rite parishes in our area, one of which was a 5 minute drive from our home. A peek at their website revealed that it was several years out of date, so one day Anne and I did a quick drive by: the big sign outside let us know that liturgy celebrated in English was at 9 am on Sunday mornings, Ukrainian at 10:30 am. I knew that the start time would be a hard sell for my love-to-sleep-in preteen and teenaged children 😬, but after our little field trip, Anne was curious and game to try it out. Henry was feeling under the weather the next Sunday, so Anne and I set off as a twosome for the first installment in our Byzantine adventure.
I have to admit, while I was feeling excited, I was also quite nervous! As a lifelong Catholic, I wasn't used to feeling so utterly out of my element in attending church on Sunday. But I truly knew very little on what to expect; as in, we couldn't find the sanctuary right away after we entered the building, this is the level of cluelessness we're dealing wtih here. 😂 We entered from the back parking lot, and there was a nice entry area with a few hallways leading off in different directions, and no obvious door to the worship space. After exiting back outside, thinking that perhaps we needed to enter from the front, we saw an actual person slip into the back door. I not-so-discreetly jogged over to follow and spy on them. 🤣
And thus we found the door. And once we entered, well. I was transported. The icon screen (iconostasis), the flicker and scent of candles and incense, the absolute silence prior to the start of the liturgy, the additional imagery portrayed on beautiful icons scattered around the space...it all lifts the mind and heart to the Father using all of our senses.
I could see the priest moving around behind the iconostasis and so we quickly hurried to find a seat. This church does have pews, though this is not always the case in Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. We genuflected and crossed ourselves in our usual Latin rite style (left shoulder to right shoulder) likely making us stick out with big WESTERN signs above our heads, but it couldn't be helped. We were clearly visitors, and just eager to observe and learn. We grabbed the books that were provided in the pew (these look like missals to me, but almost certainly are not actually called missals) and prepared to fumble along. The priest opened the center doors of the iconostasis (called the Royal Doors, I later learned) and the liturgy began.
The first thing I noticed besides the beautiful prayers and language of the liturgy, was that in the Byzantine rite, one crosses oneself A LOT. Anytime the Trinity is invoked, the congregation crosses themselves, and even sometimes when it is not, there are Signs of the Cross then, too. The Sign of the Cross in the Eastern tradition is made from right shoulder to left shoulder, and one holds their thumb and first two fingers in a little triangle as they do it, in a manner that harkens the Trinity. So beautiful! But out of familiarity I kept to my usual way of doing it as I observed my surroundings, and I noticed that we were not the only ones in the small congregation who used the Western style of crossing. I was just trying to keep up with the frequency, and anytime I missed one, Anne elbowed me to scold me. 😂 Everything felt unfamiliar yet familiar at the same time, and just utterly, off-the-charts stunning.
It was very early April, and the priest dedicated his homily to talking about St. Mary of Egypt, since her feast is celebrated in the Byzantine rite on April 1st. I had never heard of St. Mary of Egypt, and I was practically taking notes while he spoke, wild-eyed with excited interest. We now have her icon hanging in our little icon wall in the kitchen, it's the one in farthest left in the photo up at the top of this post. We then progressed through the beautiful liturgy until we got the part I was most nervous about: Communion.
In the East, the Eucharist is prepared with leavened bread, and it is administered, soaked in the Precious Blood, via being spooned into your mouth by the priest. I wanted to sit and observe that first week, until we felt more comfortable, but I will say that my daughter is brave and fearless. She was goin' in, and so I was, too. We did wait until we watched most of the rest of the congregation receive (they opened their mouths wide and tipped their heads back a bit) before proceeding into the line. And it was GREAT. I love receiving in the mouth, which I haven't been able to do since the pandemic started.
After the liturgy concluded, Father had a few announcements about upcoming fundraisers and other small events, and I could feel the warmth from the small congregation. They are a small but mighty crew.
We went back again sometime within that month (and on a week when Henry had a track event and still wasn't with us, but I'll circle back to him next week, because he comes into play shortly!) and this time, Father came up to us after the liturgy to introduce himself and welcome us. Anne immediately informed him that she would like to switch rites and become Byzantine. 😳😂 She isn't shy, that child. I was enjoying our sessions at Divine Liturgy, for sure, but I still felt solidly attached to our Latin rite parish and to my Western devotions and traditions.
OK, this story will be continued next week! We have Henry coming down the pike further into the spring, along with our beloved pastor Fr. Joe (in our Latin rite parish) retiring over Memorial Day weekend, and a gradual shift towards our becoming summer regulars and more comfortable at Divine Liturgy, including enthusiastic invitations to something called 'Koffee Klutch.' Talk to you then!