It’s Holy Wednesday. We have a three day Easter break at school, and… it’s Holy Week. It would be fair to ask why I don’t write more about God, church, the Bible, and so on. I wonder that as well. I used to write on feasts and fasts a good deal more than I do now. Last year in May I posted on Pentecost, and then nearly stopped — only adding one post a month or so since. This is my fifth year participating in Lent and Pascha, and I suppose I’m not so surprised by the services anymore — I’m less like a tourist, and more like a resident. There’s a reason why there’s no “Tucson” section on my list of blogged-about places. Tucson is’t a place to me in the same way that Tuluksak and Santa Fe are.
When I do write about church, I usually write a bit technically about the services, or, more often, I begin writing technically, grow tired of it, and write about something else instead. This seems a bit odd: I never write about teaching in a technical fashion if I can help it. I never think about the structure of days or classes if I can get out of it. But I try to explain, for instance, and Akathist, and I say: “an Akathist is a kind of chanted poem, usually set into Small Compline, just after the Doxology. It includes twelve odes, each composed of a oikos and a kontakion; the kontakion is short, and ends in alleluia, while the oikos is longer, broken up into perhaps a dozen lines, each beginning ‘rejoice,’ and praising God or the saint to whom the akathist is dedicated. the work akathist means without sitting.” And so on. This is rather peculiar, both because anyone who is familiar enough with Eastern Christian services to understand what I mean when I say all that is probably familiar enough with it to find out for themselves what an akathist (or an other service) is, and because I find this kind of description rather boring. It’s helpful for finding one’s place in a service book, but not so interesting to write about. I write about church services not only like a tourist, but even like a rather dull tourist.
The difficulty is that it is hard to find an angle to write from which is not either dully technical or uncomfortably personal — and there’s a good chance I couldn’t write the latter even if I were willing to do so. Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday evening of Holy week we have Bridegroom Matins, which is beautiful, and based upon the morning service of Orthros. Evenings and mornings are switched for Holy Week. Anyway, it’s like an Orthros service in certain particulars, and it has beautiful chanted lessons about certain parables of Jesus, and certain actions that occurred in relation to Him, with two especially well known hymns: “Behold the Bridegroom cometh in the midst of the night; and blessed is the servant whom he shall find waiting, but unworthy is he whom He shall find heedless,” and “I see thy bridal chamber richly adorned O my Savior, but I have no wedding garment that I may enter therein; O Giver of Light, make radiant the vesture of my soul and save me.” Monday night I listened to these hymns, and those about the virgins holding their lamps, and the parable of the talents, and Joseph’s captivity in Egypt, but I was tired when I got home, and besides, there’s too much there, and of such different sorts.
I’m no homilist, and perhaps writing well about things like Holy Week requires one to be — perhaps it would require that I take one or two sentences and expound upon them, consider them, and wonder about what it would be to “live into” these prayers. So one might say: centeral to this service is the proclamation: “behold the Bridegroom cometh…;” and I know that I don’t much go out of my way to “watch and pray.” And what kind of thing is it to “watch and pray,” anyway? Sometimes that’s obvious and literal: in Gethsemane Jesus told the disciples to watch and pray, and they literally fell asleep. Watching and sleeping are pretty much mutually exclusive activities (though one of our prayers asks that “even in the quietness of sleep we be illumined with remembrance of Thy dread Judgement” — but I don’t know quite what that means, or what it would be if God were to answer that prayer. There are a lot of prayers we pray in church the answering of which I cannot imagine.
So if I write neither technically nor very personally, I will almost immediately begin to flaunt my ignorance — probably some Church Father has answered all these questions, and explained these prayers very clearly, but I have neither read him, nor do I particularly intend to read him, whoever he is. Anyway — “the Bridegroom cometh in the midst of the night,” and when one is very ignorant it is a good idea to begin with the most obvious sense one can — Christ is coming when a lot of us won’t be watching unless we are told to be, and many of us won’t be watching even when we are told, as the disciples slept even after being told to keep watch; He is coming “like a thief in the night.” There is, then, this obvious sense, which suggests the Second Coming, and our own death, and also Pascha, which is both a great revelation of Christ, and begins “in the midst of the night,” before the myrrh-bearing women come “early at dawn.”
“And blessed is the servant whom He shall find watching, but unworthy is the servant whom He shall find senseless.” So the tell on the first two nights of Holy Week the cursing of the fig tree, and the parable of the ten virgins, and the parable of the talents, and the parable of the vineyard. In the first, there is the most obvious sense, wherein the tree is Israel, no longer to be the inheritor of the promise, into which the Church is now to be grafted. That’s the corporate sense, as a prophecy, but then there is, of course, also its sense as a warning to each of us, wherein Christ is the Vine, and we are the branches; and if we fail to bear fruit then we will be pruned and cast into the fire. “But the fruit of the Spirit is: love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). The kinds of things that are beautiful, and apparent when they exist, but which cannot be measured, and are difficult to cultivate, because they are not actions, but ways of going about nearly any action. God doesn’t seem to be very interested in “measurable objectives” (to pull an Education phrase), the standard being, “be ye perfect even as the Father is perfect.”
In any event: “watch and pray,” and whatever that might look like ultimately, it is certain that I might watch and pray more than I do now, whether or not I have ever experienced or am able to imagine what it means to really “pray without ceasing,”or to “even in the quietness of sleep be illumined by God’s judgement.” I could, for instance, not come home from work and watch episodes of Quantum Leap on Hulu simply because any of the other things I might do instead seem difficult and unappealing. I might not spend my planning period reading First Things blogs. I might pay better attention in services (wait, another litany already?). I might pray about classes sometimes rather than complaining about them. I could go to sleep at a reasonable hour, and get up with time to pray, rather than rolling out of bed just in the nick of time. I could read articles or listen to lectures, trying very hard to find something true, good, and useful in them, rather than attacking them at every turn.
I suspect that for one who is rather a beginner, this rather pedestrian, obvious stuff is really the most reasonable response (and I could recognize that these services have excellent poetry, so I can stop complaining about how poor the poetry is at certain Protestant services). At an OCF Winter conference a nun was talking about working on sins, and mentioned that we ought to start with what is most obviously possible — so that if one intends to conquer gluttony, and one is in the habit of eating a dozen cookies every day, it might be good to start by only eating half a dozen cookies, rather than by immediately intending to give up all cookies forever. This advice probably works better for certain kinds of sins than it might for others (if I’m very obviously hurting other people, I’d better give it up altogether as soon as possible), but it seemed like very reasonable advice.
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If I were an advice columnist (as most popular Christian writers seem to be), I suppose that at this point (I mean, at this point in an article that was much, much cleaner than the above, with much, much less distracting self-doubt and personal hang-ups), I would ask in what ways you could “watch and pray” more in your own life. I would suggest that they’re probably small but obvious. I would ask it, saddened that I couldn’t hear your answer, here and now — or perhaps ever.