Friday, March 29, 2013

Клирос и Кладбище

I was already lying awake for a few minutes in bed when my computer lit up and played “Mr. Blue Sky.” Silencing the alarm, I got ready for kliros. During Lent, most of the daily services (Matins, Hours, and Vespers) are done in the morning, starting around six and taking three to five hours, depending on a number of variables. Due to the time and the length of the service, whoever gets assigned that day is excused from classes. Friday is a pretty light day for kliros. We read two less kathismata* and don’t have to do Vespers since that is done later in the day combined with the Liturgy of the Presanctified Gifts.

When I got to church, the monks were finishing up the Midnight Office and were still reading commemoration books for the dead. I picked up a few books and started scanning through the names, some of them written down ages ago. Then it was time to start. Hierodeacon Tikhon and I went at a pretty good pace through the service, with help from the serving priest, Fr. Anatoly. We were finished in only three hours, with two hours to rest before the Presanctified Liturgy at 11 o’clock. I used the time to finish up an article on Wikipedia that I’ve been working on, and then went to liturgy. Tonight I’m actually going to Albany to sing at their service so I’ll be attending two Presanctified Liturgies today.

Presanctified went as usual, but at the end I got pulled off the kliros by my friend, who told me that Fr. Victor needed me to sing a funeral. Having gone without much rest for the past six hours, I was not very peppy but agreed to do it.

As it turned out, it wasn’t a full funeral but a short burial service. We drove up to the cemetery on the hill where most people are buried. It’s probably one of the largest Orthodox cemeteries in the country. Soon after we arrived, a man came up driving a van holding the coffin. We opened up the back, and saw that the coffin was encased in a cardboard box marked with a sticker saying ‘SYR’ and purple tape labeled “Handle Carefully: Human Remains.” The body was shipped from Sacramento to Syracuse. The name of the reposed was Tamara, 98 years old. She came from China with St. John. We lifted the blue metal coffin and started singing “Holy God…”

The muddy, snow-covered ground was slippery for our feet, and the last few yards to the grave were covered with a foot of snow which easily gave way and got into our shoes. We struggled through to the grave, and began the burial service under the ash gray sky. I didn’t exactly know the words to the hymns, but we managed to get through the best we could. In the end, Fr. Gabriel took the shovel and committed the coffin to the earth. We threw in clods of mud into the grave and went our way.

To the newly-reposed handmaid of God Tamara, memory eternal.

*A kathisma (pl. kathismata) is a division of the Psalter, composed of an average of 8 or 9 psalms. There are twenty kathismata in the Psalter.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Book Review: Do You Know Yourself?

Do You Know Yourself? by Archimandrite Symeon
For the first week of Great Lent, in between the hours of church services and sleeping we had a decent amount of time on our hands. I spent it reading.

One of the books I finished was this one, by Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos, called Do You Know Yourself? Psychological Problems and the Spiritual Life. The author is a pretty prominent figure in Greece who founded several monasteries. The talks which made up this book were made in the early 1970s but are still relevant today, if not more so.

Fr. Symeon’s main thesis is that many people are not making spiritual progress because they are stuck in psychological ruts. The truth is that we have very little understanding of ourselves. Look at a pond: it may seem calm and tranquil on the surface, but stir it up and who knows what might come up? As the holy prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is deep beyond all things.”

In order to help us overcome these psychological “blocks,” Fr. Symeon uses the work of the psychologist Karen Horney, who deviated from her teacher Freud by situtating the cause of neuroses in how people interact with one another. He cites extensively her book Our Inner Conflicts, which might be helpful to read in order to better understand the concepts in the book, but is not necessary (I didn’t read it).

According to Horney, and by extension Fr. Symeon, the three flawed “movements” that people make in relation to each other are: moving toward people, moving against people, and moving away from people. Fr. Symeon spends the most time developing the first and the third movements, apparently seeing the harm in moving against others in a domineering fashion to be obvious to everyone. Most people manifest all three of these movements in various situations in life.

The first movement comes from a distortion of love. We all feel the need for love and affection and so naturally desire to be with others. But this can easily turn into an attachment or obsession. Many people do good deeds and seek to serve others merely in order to hear the words “Good job!” from them. Or they focus on how many “likes” they get on Facebook, or how many people look at their blog. Countless young people, addicted to love, go from relationship to relationship, trying to find a partner that can solve their problems. If things don’t go well from such people there could be outbursts of hostility and other bad consequences.

The opposite tendency is to shut oneself off from others. Out of a desire to be self-sufficient, to be independent, or to simply do whatever one wants, this person builds an emotional wall around himself, not wanting to be beholden to anyone. Tragically, people who do open themselves to others often end up being burnt by them or suffering a nervous breakdown. In failing to have a “correct stance” towards others, we become psychologically (and spiritually) unhealthy.

Fr. Symeon then turns to what he calls the “idealized image,” a false view of oneself. One can be merely delusional, but oftentimes we compare the idealized images we have with ourselves with the reality, and either beat ourselves up over not being good enough or engaging in an obsessive desire for perfection. (A concrete example of this is the problems many women have with body image in modern society.) One can even start projecting his own shortcomings on others and cause quite a mess. There are a variety of ways the idealized image rules over us, creating a “dictatorship of the self.”

The only way out of this, the only way to destroy these idealized images and have a correct stance before people, is to face reality and humble oneself. You must ask yourself: “Could it be that I don’t see things well? Could it be that I'm led astray? Could it be that I'm not acting correctly?” Fr. Symeon assures us that  “The weakest, the most sinful human being  when he decides to let himself go to God’s grace  he’ll be redeemed.”

Do You Know Yourself? makes for excellent Lenten reading, and I highly recommend it. It is available at Holy Trinity Bookstore and other fine booksellers.

Do You Know Yourself? Psychological Problems and the Spiritual Life
Archimandrite Symeon Kragiopoulos
Translated by Monk Cosmas (Shartz)
Divine Ascent Press, 2010, 189pp.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

BlinFest 2013

Kustodiyev, Maslenitsa
This week is Cheesefare Week, known in Russian as Maslenitsa. As the week before the beginning of the Orthodox Great Lent, we do not eat animal flesh, but are allowed to eat fish and dairy products. It’s comparable to Carnival or Mardi Gras/Shrove Tuesday in the West. In fact, Shrove Tuesday is also known as Pancake Day because Catholics used to also abstain from dairy products like the Orthodox, and thus had to get rid of their butter and milk somehow.

Russians also enjoy pancakes, or rather rich crepes called blini. I first read about blini when I was an elementary school student studying to compete in the Geography Bee. “The Russians can eat pancakes at any time of day!” I was amazed. After becoming Orthodox, I soon got to enjoy blini, though for a while I could not pronounce the word correctly.

Last year, I got to prepare blini that our Russian Literature teacher Fr. Victor had made. But this year I got to make the blini! A couple of us used our free hours and went to the kitchen across the way from the monastery refectory. Fr. Victor was already flipping four pans of blini. My compatriot and I relieved him, each taking two pans.

Making blini is relatively simple. Since they’re crepes, the batter is somewhat more watery than regular pancake batter. Just pour some batter into the pan and spread it out a bit. when it looks like it’s getting a little dry, add some melted butter and flip it over. Add copious amounts of butter on the other side as well. After a minute on each side, you’re done. A properly-made blin should slide out of the pan. My first attempts were of course rather clumsy (but at least they weren’t lumpy!) but after a while I got the hang of it.

They matched my hoodie.
Fr. Victor took a few blini and fed the monastery cats. “Good, the cats are eating the blini…that means it’s edible. If they weren’t eating…I would be concerned.”

I guess they liked it.
The blini were ultimately destined for the festal meal after the fifth anniversary of Vladika Lavr’s repose, which was yesterday. Metropolitan Hilarion and a number of priests came to celebrate the liturgy. I think the blini was a hot commodity. With good turnover, if you will. Okay, enough of that.

Tomorrow is the first day of Great Lent. They’ve already changed the colors in the church from gold to black. I hope that your Lent is spiritually productive, and that you have a joyous Pascha. Forgive me, a sinner!

Thursday, March 7, 2013

The Maestro

It is a rare event in one’s life to encounter a true craftsman. One who steadily works on his art, continually perfecting it, demanding more and more from the materials he works with. Someone sensitive to the little nuances others would miss. Someone like Jiro Ono, the three-star sushi chef who was the subject of my favorite documentary.

After this weekend, I can say that I have met such a man. Vladimir Gorbik, the maestro from Moscow, conductor of ten choirs at the Moscow Representation Church of the Trinity-Sergius Lavra, father of nine children. Last weekend he took his talent and attempted to mold twenty-six of us into a powerhouse choir. It was both a great challenge for us and for him, I’m sure. Jiro works with dead fish, but Gorbik works with living humans.

We were from three different seminaries—St. Tikhon’s, St. Vladimir’s, and Holy Trinity—having a long history of sometime rivalry. Although all three institutions can be said to be in the Russian tradition, it was the first time in history that we got together to sing a concert. There were four from Jordanville, six from Crestwood, and fourteen from South Canaan. Plus Alex Cooley and Elias from Montreal.

Rehearsals began on Thursday evening. We sat in our seats in fearsome expectation of the coming of the Maestro. I heard stories that he could be a harsh taskmaster. Then, a man in a gray dress shirt came in. His eyes were deeply set and looked like they had pored over many a music manuscript. He looked serious. Gorbik motioned for us to pray, and we begun with “O Heavenly King.”

We then started with the Great Doxology. Maestro Gorbik first worked with us in the bass section. He raised his arms. We sang: “Glo—” He stopped us. “Glor—” Nope. “G—” No way. He took out his iPhone, threw it in the air, and caught it. “This is how I want you to start.” We tried again, and as soon as his hand fell, we all started at the same time.

The rehearsals—over sixteen hours over three days—went much like that. We stopped and started. As soon as the Maestro found a little problem, we went over it again and again until it was fixed. “Stop singing like you’re enjoying a hot shower!” he told us again and again. This all caused us to go rather slowly at first, and I consider it almost a miracle that we were able to go over the concert repertoire. He also made us responsible for our own singing. If, during rehearsal, we sang the wrong note or breathed incorrectly, we had to stand up and sing several phrases. We were all popping up and down like whack-a-moles.

He also encouraged us not only to sing correctly, but also to sing with the right meaning, taking in the spiritual meaning of the text. To that end, he told us quite a few anecdotes, translated by our very hard-working interpreter. He told us about his time in the Holy Land, his amazement at the Vatopedi choir on Mount Athos, the death mask of Beethoven. All these anecdotes helped us not only understand what we’re doing (wrong), but also established a rapport between him and us. For example, while we were singing “Doors of Repentance,” he told us about King David: “Now, when King David found out that his son Absalom was killed—his own son, who rebelled against him—he went on procession barefoot, and sprinkled ashes on his head. Can you imagine Barack Obama—or Vladimir Putin for that matter—doing that? You need to sing with David’s spirit of repentance.”

There were a few breaks during rehearsals, and several hours each day, but we were basically doing nothing but singing, eating, and sleeping. We had Vigil and Liturgy at the St. Tikhon’s Monastery Church, with His Beatitude Metropolitan Tikhon serving. His Beatitude liked the singing, but we (and Gorbik) knew that we had made some glaring errors and needed to work some more.

After Liturgy, I approached Benedict Sheehan, the conductor of the St. Tikhon’s choir, with a desire to sing the solo for “The Waters of Babylon.” I had the feeling that I wasn’t going to get it, but I wanted to try. Benedict explained the situation to Gorbik, who was at first reluctant but decided to hear me out. We went to Benedict’s office. I sang the first canonarchal verse: “We hanged our harps upon the willows…”

“Stop. Try again,” he said.

I stuck my diaphragm to the sticking point and somehow found some extra room in my upper palate. When I reached the last note it felt as if my entire head was ringing like a bell. He got the sound he wanted. I worked with him one-on-one, with the assistance of Benedict, Elias, and the interpreter. It wasn’t jelling. As I tried singing for the umpteenth time, he got up. “I’ve got a good exercise for you. Archimandrite Matfei taught me this.” He went to the piano. “Think that you’re picking up a piano when you’re singing.” Apparently he was only being figurative but I took him literally and grabbed one corner of the upright piano and pulled upward. This time my voice sounded a lot stronger. Apparently the tension caused by lifting the piano did good things to my abs. By the end of rehearsal I felt like I just did fifty sit-ups.

The concert was at an Episcopalian church in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania. At the sound check (which was really the final rehearsal), Maestro Gorbik was still pushing us. When I tried doing my solo, he sent me to the piano! It didn’t have the effect he wanted. (I blame the piano. I work better with uprights, not grands.) “Keep practicing,” he said. I went off to a conference room, which luckily had an upright piano, and kept singing until it was time to go to the green room.

The Maestro gave us his pre-game pep talk. He was only strict to us in order to get out the best possible sound. “What’s the sense of telling you ‘Good job!’ when you made a mistake? You’re grown adults, not children.” As the Lord chastiseth those whom He loveth, so also did he chastise us. We lined up and marched out to face the audience of three hundred.

I could describe the concert, but why don’t you judge for yourself from this clip? The sound quality is camcorder-level, but it captures some of the spirit of our performance.

It wasn’t perfect, and there were some obvious hiccups in singing, but the audience received us enthusiastically. Bishop Michael of the OCA also stood up and gave some congratulatory words. I think we were all ready to sleep. The concert will be featured on local radio (available streaming here) in the near future; I’ll let you all know when it comes on. Also, God willing, we’ll eventually have a CD of the performance!

I’m very happy that I got the chance to work with Maestro Gorbik and all the other people who made this concert a success, and hope that we can do this again next year. I also recommend to anyone wanting to improve their vocal strength to start lifting pianos. Don’t sing yourself a hernia, though.

The Feast of Friendship

Lent is fast approaching for Orthodox Christians, which means that the time window for eating meat is quickly closing. This causes Jordanville seminarians to go on a yearly trek to Dinosaur Ribs.

Dinosaur Barbecue is a restaurant started up in Syracuse by a biker who traveled the South, sampled many of its tasty meat creations, and brought back the best stuff to Upstate New York. There’s also a branch in Albany, which is the one we went to this time. There were eleven of us, including Pete, Kate, and their baby Lucy, a.k.a. Cuteness. When our waitress Brittany came to our table, it was love at first sight:

“Welcome to Dinosaur! Have any of you been here bef-ooooh helllOOOOO!!!!!!” Behold the power of Cuteness.

Most of us guys ordered the full rack of ribs. When Brittany came to me, there was a moment of hesitation. “Are you sure you can finish it?” I meekly said yes. However, I was prepared to eat my words when the ribs came.

It doesn’t even fit in the frame!
Though we were having some good conversation beforehand, once the food came it was all business. And lamentation from stuffing ourselves with so much. We had to finish everything to prove that we were not weenies. “Finishing” involved eating our two sides. “Once we’re finished, we’ll have five sides,” said one of us.

By the end of dinner most of us had finished our racks—save me. I had three ribs left. I attempted to separate the meat from the bone in order to make it look like not so much, but that psychological tactic did not win against my stomach’s cries that it had had ENOUGH. In shame, I asked for a box.

“You don’t deserve this.” Said Brittany sternly. Although she was nice afterward.

“It’s okay, John. You’ll appreciate them more tomorrow.” Said Kate.

Pete answered, “he’s not going to appreciate the ribbing we’re going to give him!” Groaaaaaan.

Nevertheless, I did finish the ribs in the end, before we left the restaurant. However, as it was after we had stood up and paid the bill, it did not count. But STILL! there weren’t any (meat) leftovers.

I may have lost this time, but I’m looking forward to the rematch!