Friday, June 22, 2012

Pilgrimage Week (Part II)

A Thorough Baptism

I last left you, dear readers, in the car with Juliana, Nicky, and me, keeping the sun on our left as we went back to Jordanville. I forgot the Google Maps directions in Harry's car, but that wasn't too much of a problem as long as we kept going north. The journey back actually ended up shorter! We tried to find a pirate ship in the fields (no joke) that we passed before, but I guess we missed it since we took a different route.

We got back in time to have some burgers on the grill at Pete and Kate's. Yes! It's Memorial Day! And summer's here! The only thing possibly lacking was a nice caipirinha.

On Tuesday, baby Lucy was thoroughly baptised by Kate's dad, Fr David. Quite a few of us crowded in the bell tower baptistery, including Pete's mom and brother and Kate's family. The Jordanville baptistery is brightly frescoed in appropriately symbolic icons such as the Baptism of Christ, the Transfiguration, and the Annunciation, as well as the icons of holy new-martyrs of the Russian Church. Lucy won't remember what happened, but being baptised here is quite a treat for her, in my opinion. After the baptism Pete and Kate gave a reception outside using the same awnings from Commencement, featuring giant sandwiches.

St. Nektarios

Our motley crew.

On Wednesday, I went down with Nicky and Joanna (wife of our Dean's Assistant Fr. Ephraim) to St. Nektarios Monastery in Roscoe, NY. St. Nektarios, like St. Tikhon's is south of Jordanville, but a little more to the east. There we met with the small group of pilgrims that was making the whole trip from St. Tikhon's to Holy Trinity. It was a very diverse group of people. There were familiar faces, like Dima, whom I met at St. Herman's, and Harry, but I also made some new friends, including Noemi, a quiet horse-lover, and Alison, an erudite young student and new blogging buddy. Both of whom made an impromptu race to one of the trees on the monastic property.

"First one to the tree is Matushka Material!" cried Harry.
"Um, isn't one of them [Alison] already married?" said Nicky.
"Well, her husband could become a priest," said I.

Alison won, by the way.

We enjoyed the well-maintained grounds of the monastery, as well as the more rougher parts, filled with overgrown brush and turtles. The small and diverse group also facilitated interesting discussions on many topics.

Turtles, as you can see, are natural hermits.

We immersed ourselves in the liturgical cycle of the monastery, going to Vespers and Compline on Wednesday evening, as well as Matins and Liturgy during the night. Unfortunately, I missed the night services because I forgot to set an alarm, as well as having some trouble falling asleep. Oh well, I guess that means I'll have to go again some other time!

On Thursday morning, after a hearty breakfast, we sat down in the monastery bookstore for a spiritual discussion with Fr. Epiphanios, one of the hieromonks at the monastery. Fr. Epiphanios was a very down to earth and prayerful man who shared with us stories about St. Nektarios of Aegina, the patron saint of the monastery. One story he shared was about how St. Nektarios, as dean of the theological academy in Athens, helped save a sick janitor's job by doing all his work during his period of illness, and giving him the paychecks earned during this time. Fr. Epiphanios also discussed spiritual life with us. I'm not very good at writing about spiritual topics, but suffice it to say that we all came from that discussion with something profitable.

Unfortunately, I had to go back again to Jordanville, this time to prepare for the final leg of the pilgrimage. Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Pilgrimage Week (Part 1)

From May 27 to June 3, some intrepid young people joined in a week-long pilgrimage to monasteries in Pennsylvania and New York State. I was one of them, although I didn't do the whole pilgrimage but went back and forth between Jordanville and various pilgrimage sites. For me, it all started with Commencement.

Akt-ing Up

The official end of the school year at Jordanville is Commencement, know in Russian as Akt. The format of Commencement hasn’t changed much over the decades. The students and faculty have a procession to the church, where we have a moleben service for the end of the year. Then we process to the seminary hall, where we have the official ceremony, with the singing of the national anthems and the distribution of diplomas and awards. Finally, we have a reception in the monastery courtyard, with—get this—meat! and other delicious things.

The day is usually very hot. I was baking in my black cassock as we processed to the church in double-file, chanting the troparion for Pentecost. We don’t have air conditioning in the seminary hall either, but the ceremony is mercifully short, clocking in at about an hour. First, we started with the national anthems. I sang the Russian and American anthems with the Quartet. The Russian anthem was, of course, “God Save the Tsar.”

Then came speakers. Fr Luke gave an address which was translated into English on our programs. Addressing the graduates, he called upon them to remember their time here at seminary and to continue their study. Then, he introduced the Commencement Speaker, Fr Meletios Webber. He gave a long and enlightening talk on asceticism. He joked in the beginning that it was odd “for a fat man to be talking about asceticism,” but he clearly knew what he was talking about. The graduates got their diplomas and some of the other students got awards. Finally, Sergei, one of the graduating students, gave a valedictory speech in which he talked about how he loved his experiences at Jordanville. It was in Russian and I hardly understood any of it, but it felt like it was from the heart.

And then it was time for chicken and ice cream. Awnings set up in the courtyard protected platters of cheese, slices of meat, and other goodies. Fried chicken and fish were side-by-side and they looked rather alike, making for some consternation among the monks. I ran into a nice lady whom I didn’t know from Eve but who somehow recognized me. Apparently she was the mother of a friend of mine who had told her to say hi to someone who, well, looked like me.

Keeping the Sun on One’s Right

I hated to eat and run, but I had to go down to St. Tikhon’s, the first stop on the pilgrimage journey. Nicky Kotar and I went down with our friend Harry, who was driving. I somehow (with a few hiccups) navigated us through back roads through the countryside, a straight line south from Jordanville to South Canaan. Basically, I made sure that the sun was on our right.

We got to St. Tikhon’s around dusk and joined in on the choir rehearsal already going on. The Eastern Diocese Youth Choir was singing at St. Tikhon’s for their annual Memorial Day Pilgrimage, an unprecedented level of ROCOR/OCA cooperation. I was happy to see quite a few familiar faces. After having some pizza, I got down to business. Benedict Sheehan, a music instructor at St. Tikhon’s Seminary (and writer of an article which I really liked), was directing the choir this weekend, and we had a long rehearsal with him and Nicky which lasted until after ten at night. Harry and I then went to the nearest Comfort Inn, where we were generously put up for the night. We had to make sure to get up in the early morning for rehearsal, so I set up a wake-up call for 6:30.

We got up at eight. Apparently wake-up calls malfunction. Thankfully, by the time Harry and I got to St. Tikhon’s there was about an hour left of rehearsal and we didn’t miss too much. After going over a few pieces (some of which I already knew) it was time for Liturgy.

The chapel we sang in looked like a converted barn. It probably was a converted barn. Not exactly best for aesthetics, but appropriate for the hundreds of people coming. We sang on steel risers on the left side of the altar. The sweat was pouring from me, and the cassock made for a personal greenhouse effect. Jeff, a very kind Tikhonian seminarian, got us some water.

Liturgy was impressive. Metropolitan Jonah, four other OCA bishops, and a score of priests, including some of our own ROCOR clergy, celebrated the liturgy. Met. Jonah gave a good sermon about living the Christian life. Fr Serge Lukianov, one of our own, gave a message from Met. Hilarion giving his congratulations to St. Tikhon’s and recommending that everyone go to Jordanville for Labor Day.

Afterwards we were free to enjoy the rest of the festivities. It was an interesting ambiance. There were food stands selling hot dogs and pierogies, sausage and stuffed cabbage. To cool off in the heat, I had a frozen lemonade. I hung out with a few of my syezd friends, and got to see the Hawaiian Myrrh-streaming icon which was visiting for the weekend.

Nicky and I had to get back to Jville for the next day for the baptism of Kate and Pete’s baby,  so we had to get back on the road. First, however, a few of us went to Benedict’s house for some late afternoon hospitality. Benedict was a very good host, and his four or so little girls were charming and well-behaved. Cool beer, fresh popcorn, and homemade lemonade made for a pleasant afternoon and pleasant company.

And then, we were back on the road. This time Nicky and I were going back with Juliana, Kate’s sister and the godmother-to-be. And this time we kept the sun on our left. What a wonderful weekend!

But you don’t have to take my word for it! Here’s a nifty documentary that the EA Diocese made for the event:

Monday, June 18, 2012

Orthodox Arts Journal!

I’m happy to tell you about a new blog I came across today. It’s published by Scott Patrick O'Rourke, the student of Andrew Gould, one of the best church architects in the Orthodox world today. The blog, entitled the Orthodox Arts Journal, seeks to cover all aspects of Orthodox liturgical arts such as sacred music, architecture and iconography. This new blog is a collaboration between Mr Gould and other fellow-craftsmen in the Orthodox arts today, including my friend, classmate and benevolent choir dictator director, Nicholas Kotar.

After a quick reading of the articles posted so far, I was quite impressed by their thoughtful depth. The first post by Jonathan Pageau outlines the fallen, human origins of art, and how Christ’s Incarnation can transform art into a revelation of the Kingdom of God. The next post by Andrew Gould draws out this topic. He writes on how all the arts, both minor and major, can reveal the Kingdom: “Even the smallest arts - a blend of incense, the embroidery on a sacred towel - directly represent an aspect of God’s Kingdom.” This is a good corrective for our unbalanced, rationalist age that puts so much attention on texts and our intellectual understanding of them. Mr Gould also wrote an interesting piece on a beautiful choros—a church chandelier—that he designed, an example of one of the “minor” arts.

One of my favorite posts so far is the one by Benedict Sheehan of St. Tikhon’s Seminary. Benedict, with whom I have the pleasure of being acquainted, wrote a very nice and succinct article—the first in a series—on the principles of sacred music. Since true sacred music is nothing other than a participation in the chorus of the angels, he writes, it needs to have certain qualities, which include a devoted and watchful disposition.

Finally, rounding out the posts are several by Fr Stéphane Bigham in which he demonstrates that most Christians today actually do share the same presuppositions as the Fathers of the Second Nicene Council, and that thus nobody should have qualms about venerating icons.

In all, I was very impressed by these posts and am looking forward to more in the future!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Three Concerts: Addenda (mostly involving food)

Several things I forgot to mention about our Rachmaninoff Festival gig in my previous post:

I always enjoy visiting Cambridge. The old-world charm of the buildings plus all the different little shops form a perfect combination. Before our concert at the First Church of Cambridge, we stopped at a popular pub called Grendel’s Den. I had been to Grendel’s Den once before, and ever since have been hankering for a revisit.

We arrived during Happy Hour, which meant that all food was half-off as long as we bought a drink. I got a Dark and Stormy (rum and ginger beer) which was tasty, although I probably could have used more rum!

As for food, I ordered the Beggar’s Banquet, which included a rice pilaf, pita bread, spinach pie, and a ten-ounce steak, all at an economical price. “This should be called the Seminarian’s Banquet!” wagged one of us at the table.

After the concert, we went out with some of the festival organizers for second dinner at a local eatery which boasted both authentic Mexican and Cajun cuisine. Still full from the Beggar’s Banquet, I opted for a bowl of Louisiana Gumbo, my first taste of the flavorful stew.

With the close of an enjoyable evening filled with food and company, we finally called it quits and headed over to Concord to receive lodging at the house of a certain deacon. Said deacon welcomed us with open arms and put us up for the night, but before I retired the two of us stayed up a little discussing the mysteries of space and time. You know, the usual.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Three Concerts

In April and May, we went to three concerts:

In late April, we sang at the Russian Consulate in New York City for the 50th anniversary celebration of the emigre literary journal Novy Zhurnal (New Review). On the way to NYC we passed through East Durham, the most Irish place I’ve ever passed through, where we stopped and had lunch at a Western Steakhouse with a shamrock on the sign. The concert was all right (I survived), we had a nice reception at the consulate with a nightcap later on with one of the deacons at Synod. We stayed (like last time) in the Synodal conference room.

About a week later, we sang at the Russian Icon Museum in Clinton, Massachusetts. The museum was built to house the vast icon collection (he largest in North America) of one man, the chairman of a billion-dollar plastic molding corporation. The venue was nice and had decent acoustics. I liked the audience, who were mostly American, since they responded well to each of our pieces. Several of them were even members of the Church. Two of them, a man and wife, came up to a couple of us after a concert and expressed their disappointment that we didn’t sing “Христосъ Воскресе” at the end of the concert. So the three of us obliged, singing the Paschal Hymn in the café, Jordanville style.

The latest concert we sang was on Ascension Day, in Cambridge. It was a somewhat rushed feeling, as that morning we had just been at liturgy and all. However, it was still pretty fun since we were singing as part of the Rachmaninoff Music Festival going on that week. We went to the First Church in Cambridge (as opposed to the First Parish in Cambridge), a congregationalist church with very nice and traditional architecture. We rehearsed in the hallway of the church hall, where I looked at some of the proclamations of their church against dogma and rules as well as the pastor’s sermons, which seemed to reduce the gospel to left-wing politics. At least the acoustics were nice. We had a nice set. After we finished a choir from Moscow called Elegia sang a nice mix of sacred and folk music. I liked the choir, but I was somewhat amused by their dress and performance. The women wore aquamarine shawls and the men wore aquamarine ties. And when they sang, they didn’t stand still, but swayed from side to side enraptured in emotion. It had the effect of a giant sea anemone on the stage. No offense.

And thus our performing season has ended for the year. We will, however, unite again in August in San Francisco for a special performance. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

All in a day’s work.

Yesterday, Fr. Cyprian quietly left me in charge of the dormitory in his absence. For the next two and a half weeks, I will have to get rooms ready for visitors and summer boys, make sure things get cleaned, make sure nothing gets blown up, etc. The job does have its perks, including the unlimited power I have. Not that it’s going to go to my head or anything.

Alongside my temporary superpowers is my secret identity as a mild-mannered bookstore clerk. Today was a pretty quiet day in the story. I mostly spent it tidying up and restocking. I had to wash pots and pans after lunch, so I asked one of my co-workers (also named John) to fill in for me for an hour. After I came back I tackled a difficulty we had with our software: for some reason, we couldn’t access our customer orders. That meant that we couldn’t ship anything out.

Pete (who is in New York City at the moment) suggested that I do a reindex for both the store computer and the laptop, which was also used. However, the laptop remained mysteriously powerless. A search on youtube yielded successful results: the laptop had a power overload and had to be discharged. I was very happy to learn the method since I had an old computer that had the same problem. First, I unplugged the laptop and took out the battery. Second, I held down the power button for thirty seconds. This discharged any remaining power in the computer. Third, I plugged in the laptop WITHOUT putting the battery back in and turned it on. Presto!

Unfortunately, doing the reindexing didn’t work. So I called tech support, who guided me through a reboot and reinstall of the software (after backing everything up, of course). The reinstall worked, and I was successfully able to open up the customer orders screen.

I came back to the dorm, tired but relieved that things were settled. After resting for a couple hours, I heard a knock on my door. It was a former classmate of mine, holding a bloody paper towel against his thumb. “You’re in charge while Fr. Cyprian is away, right?” I took him to the office, helped dress his wound (which he got while cutting bread) and sent him off.

And the day’s not even over yet!

Tuesday, June 5, 2012


It looks like my record for posting on this blog has dropped to near-record levels. Worry not, patient reader: I will be writing a steady stream of posts. Much has happened. Over the past month or so I’ve sang in concerts, gone on pilgrimage, and helped organize pilgrims visiting Jordanville.

I’m staying most of the summer working at the monastery. To earn my keep I will be manning the bookstore. Most of the time. The rest will be spent on getting ready for the summer kids to show up in mid-June. Not that I’ll be stuck here forever: in August I’ll be traveling to San Francisco to sing at a concert and Canada to sing at a wedding. There will be wine, women, and song. At least the first and the third things.

Many visitors have seen my post on Russian church architecture. It is sort of the Reader’s Version of the first part of a paper I wrote for my Russian Church History class. I have happy news: that paper and a subsequent one I wrote (on Muscovite church architecture) will be published in the periodical Orthodox Life, published by our monastery. Although my post was pretty different from the final paper, it was similar enough to cause me to delete it.

Anyway, I’m glad that you’re still reading this blog despite my recent lack of posts. Stay tuned!