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Moria to Lothlorien: A personal reflection on my first Lent/Pascha

April 25, 2010

I want to interrupt my flow to talk about what I learned and experienced during my first Lent and Pascha (2010). I think the image of the dark of Moria, transitioning into the “immortal” splendor of Lothlorien matches what I felt and experienced during this time of year. From beginning to end (especially the end) it was powerful. This season has actually changed my perspective on some things, and hopefully changed me for the better. Obviously this is just the beginning of what will be a lifetime of change.

Just as Frodo found himself in a violently abrupt plunge into the darkness of the mine, so I found the beginning of Lent to effect me almost immediately. I was struck by the sense of my own sinfulness. The first of the services I was able to attend was Great Compline. I remember walking into the church and it was dark and sombre. The censor of incense had no bells, and the vestments of the priest were of a deep, rich purple. The Tone of the prayers, the hymns, canons and litany were of a mournful sound to me. I had come excited about my first Lent, but was quickly taken by the solemn mood of the service. The only prayer that I really remember was a reference to the Publican and the Pharisee: “I have not had the righteousness of the pharisee, and yet I am proud. I have sinned worse than the publican, and yet I have not repented.” I suppose if that is all I could remember of the service, that’s more than enough. Those words were a blast from a shotgun to me. It was as if the Heavenly Physician had shown me a glimpse of what was inside me and said, “This is what I need to deal with.” Lent wasn’t just a Church season to be experienced, but was a purification to be gone through.

I had just been enrolled as a catechumen a few weeks prior, and had spoken to my priest about wanting to be purified and made ready for reception into the Church, not just given a bunch of information about being received into the Church. I realized that the Lenten season is a big part of that, with it’s prayers, hymns and services that are leading up to the crucifixion of our Great God and Saviour, with Whom we must be crucified. My introduction to it was powerful. I remember being overwhelmed by these feelings of mourning over my own sin, feeling the need of mercy and yet knowing I was not worthy to even think about asking (but I did). I remember asking myself now this overpowering sense of sinfulness was to be reconciled with the fact that Orthodoxy’s general view of mankind is far higher than the average Protestant (especially Calvinist). Father Stephen Freeman was gracious enough to answer the question by email. His answer helped me gain some perspective.

At the end of the next week I was able to find some reprieve. I went to the Little Compline with the Akathist to the Theotokos. I have a slight part of me that winces at the exalted language used in reference to the Virgin Mary. This time, however, I specifically told myself to remember the fact that all such exalted language points to the beauty, majesty and holiness of Jesus. As soon as I corrected myself, I remember beginning to find a solace and joy in the rest of the Akathist prayers. It was like a mini oasis in the Lenten season’s “desert” of repentance. It also helps that one of our women in the choir has the voice of an angel. It was then, and still is hard to describe the peace I had from that service. One of the other things I found to be powerful were the prostrations. It was quite an experience to bow my whole self, physically before God. Even my two older girls liked it.

As far as the fasting went, the only thing I really craved was ice cream, and hard-boiled eggs. I had a few jars of eggs that were pickling during that time. It got hard to wait at the end… but luckily I did. My wife was very supportive of my dietary changes. I do regret not being able to observe the “relational” fast better, but this is only my first Lent… One struggle that proved to be the most difficult, was balancing how many services to go to, but still be courteous to my wife, who is not Orthodox and give time to the family. We had many discussions about why I was attending so many services. I explained that this is part of Lent. Maybe I went a little too gung-ho. I’m sure I will learn moderation…

Palm Sunday, through Good Friday was kind of a whirlwind and a blur. One thing that stuck with me, was that my girls wanted to come to most of the services I attended. It was a real joy for me to have them there with me. Even my 9 month old seemed more tolerant of the length of the services.

I made sure to not attend every service during Holy Week, to be supportive to my wife’s feelings. The services at the end of the week I told her, were the most important for me to attend, and she was okay with that. The service of the crucifixion was very powerful. The scene of the priest and deacon nailing the icon of Christ to the Cross was very moving. My girls said it scared them. The prostrations  before the cross were especially moving. At the burial service, in which Christ is wrapped in linen and “buried”, the solemnity seemed to reach its peak… but not just quite. I was not able to attend service where the Church does a procession, then walks under the bier, as a symbolic act of dying with Christ, due to family obligations. Through the night, the Psalter was read at the funeral bier of Christ. It is called the “Vigil at the Tomb.” I came in about 5am. It felt as if I was actually keeping vigil at a tomb. I had not expected that at all.

That morning’s service saw three catechumen baptized and chrismated. It was a surprisingly bright service, considering “Christ is in Hades” during this point in the history of Holy Week. I was excited for my brothers in Christ, and also had a sense of anticipation for the day that I and my family will be received in the Church. I also got to meet on of the people whose journey to Orthodoxy I was able to hear on podcast. That was a real pleasure.

All that day was exciting. Tonight we go to the main Paschal Service before midnight, and declare that Christ is Risen. My two older girls, despite being warned how late it would be, were so excited about going, they actually only took a catnap before we left for church. My wife was unable to attend due to work obligations. The first part of the service was very solemn and dark, then the lights went completely out. My girls got scared, but I held them close and whispered to them that it was okay. At that point Father Patrick came out from behind the veil in the Sanctuary with the candlestick, singing “Come Receive The Light” in Greek or Arabic (not sure which). To me, that was the most moving thing of the whole Lenten experience. I don’t know why, but it was. We did the procession, came back into the church and declared, “Christ Is Risen!” “Truly He Is Risen!” The brightness and joy of the Church was amazing. Even more amazing was that my girls were too amped to fall asleep, and stayed awake for the whole thing.

It was a joy better than Christmas Morning. I don’t know which was a greater joy, the service itself, or the fact that my girls were there to enjoy it with me (maybe a little of both). As we transitioned from the Liturgy to the after feast, it felt like a battle had been fought and won, and we were celebrating that victory together. Even though I am brand new to the parish, I felt, that night, like I really belonged. It was a feeling I remember experiencing at “Grad Night” in 1992. It was a sense of intense joy, coupled with the feeling that you never want it to end, but know it must. The girls and I drove home that night (Morning really) overjoyed, and sharing the things we like best about the experience. It was a transcendent moment all its own.

One of the things that I believe has begun to change for me as a result of Lent, is a compassion born out of a humble reflection of my own sin. What I mean is, I can no longer judge situations or people the way I have in the past. I realize that I need to show the mercy of God to every person, the way I have been shown mercy. One of the biggest changes in perspective, that demonstrates this, is my change in stance on some issues regarding healthcare. Here is a link to something I wrote as a reflection:

http://www.facebook.com/notes/jeremiah-nelson/jesus-and-healthcare/415518819401 (let me know if this doesn’t work)

I’m sure I have left out a lot, but this is already too long. I had to share what I could remember, before I lost it for good. I know that the experiences will change as I grow and change, but I think to myself, “If this is what it’s like before I am fully received into the Church, imagine what it will be like when I am illumined.”

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. christina d permalink
    April 26, 2010 4:30 pm

    You do belong. You know that, right?

    And BOY am I glad you showed up for the vigil!

  2. April 26, 2010 5:32 pm

    Thanks CD!! I appreciate that! (Yes I do)

  3. April 27, 2010 3:43 pm

    Christ is risen!

    Your entire family is in my prayers. It is wonderful to read about your journey, Jeremiah.

    I cannot tell you how much joy it brings to my heart when I see my children participating in and enjoying Divine Liturgy and various other services, so I know your heart must be full of joy as well. And as far as prostrations go, I don’t think there was ever a time I did it this year without tearing up. And reciting the prayer of Saint Ephrem? Flat out crying.

    Blessings, Susan

  4. Theodotus permalink
    April 28, 2010 1:45 am

    Jeremiah,
    Your blog is very personal (almost too personal) and interesting. I am also Orthodox (just 2 years now) Previously Protestant 30+ years, Bible School etc… I have VERY similar relations to my parents (my dad also committed suicide..long story). I do have one other suggestion, but listen do really listen to your Priest. Do not be in a hurry to become Orthodox especially if it means you and your wife do not become Orthodox together. I can share more, but not here. I am in Virginia and attend a Carpatho Russian Orthodox Congregation. My beloved wife is not Orthodox.. neither are any of my children. I was in a rush to become Orthodox…
    Don’t get me wrong though. Orthodoxy is the TRUE historic faith, there are no other viable options. I did the RIGHT thing, just at the WRONG time and with little real guidance…

    Email me as you like.
    The unworthy servant of God Theodotus

    PS.. I am a long time fan/reader of Tolkein, CS Lewis etc.. I first read the Hobbit and the Trilogy while under the water near Russia on a fast attack Submarine at the tail end of Vietnam… note my email address.. 🙂

    • April 29, 2010 8:56 am

      I appreciate your advise on waiting. I have been under the close direction of my priest. He is on the slow track as well. I have recognized the rush within myself, and have slowed myself down. Luckily my kids are young enough to “go wth the flow” and actually enjoy Orthodoxy, if only at a child’s level. My wife, at this point, has no intension of becoming Orthodox. I have let her know that I will not pressure her. My priest is a wise man, with a very keen pastoral heart. He is keeping me on track… the slow track.
      Interesting that we have similar types of family background. My first exposure to Tolkien was as a teenager. I have read the series a few times. I have found a few of his other writings, which I need to make time to read.
      I have made a note of your email. I would love to hear more about your journey. It may take me a while to sit down and write, but that’s just my schedule right now.
      Thanks Again,
      Jeremiah

    • July 28, 2010 4:33 pm

      Theodius,
      I recently tried to email you, but was unsuccessful. Please recomment so I can get your current email.

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