Now that I’m back at home, I have had the chance to recharge for a couple of days, working on various side projects and volunteering at our parish. I was grateful that the icons I purchased in San Francisco remained intact, and that the vials of holy oil I packed in my shaving kit kept intact through the day’s journey. The oil comes from the reliquary of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, whose relics are found at Holy Virgin Cathedral.
As I was on my way home, I found myself reading about St. John, and in my studies, I learned that he was responsible for making Orthodox more aware of the need to venerate the Western pre-schism saints (i.e., those who were around before the famous split in 1054). A quote that is attributed to him (although a bit of a back-handed quip as well) was “”Never, never, never let anyone tell you that, in order to be Orthodox, you must be Eastern. The West was fully Orthodox for a thousand years, and her venerable liturgy is far older than any of her heresies.” This meant that the saints of the Viking era, as well as the Celtic lands, were as Orthodox a saint as those who were Greek, Ukrainian or Georgian.
In going to back to St. John’s efforts, Hieromonk Damascene described the saint as fully devoted to bringing out the saints of each place he visited, saying that “Wherever St. John went—Russia, Serbia, China, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Italy, Tunisia, America—he researched the Lives of the local Orthodox Saints. He went to the churches housing their relics, performed services in their honor, and asked the Orthodox priests there to do likewise.” (All of this was on top of advocating for many well-known figures in Orthodoxy, such as St. Herman of Alaska and St. John of Kronstadt, to receive canonization.)
As our family’s saint is Celtic (St. Brendan the Navigator), and my wife’s and my saints (Sts. Brigid and Patrick, respectively) are Celtic, this was a joy to learn about. Having spent most of my Orthodox life in predominately Eastern European and Arab-American parishes, our saint names admittedly stick out a bit, yet they also reflect, for some of us who’ve found the faith as adults, a bridge between our Western roots and the Eastern-style worship and faith practice to which we chose to devote ourselves.
This sense of cultural connection could also be seen in my visit to Holy Trinity Cathedral, which is the oldest Orthodox parish in the United States, and which St. Tikhon the New Martyr was instrumental in establishing. As a bishop, St. Tikhon’s church work reflected the diverse makeup of the United States; as the Bishop of the Aleutian Islands and Alaska, he was in charge of a region known for both indigenous and Russian communities, as well as the variety of groups that came to Alaska during its time as a territory. St. Tikhon visited the many immigrant communities of the United States, helped bring many communities into Orthodoxy (including the Carpatho-Rusyns), and had diverse bishops aid him in his work- including St. Raphael, the founder of our home parish. He had a wide variety of followers, from different ethnicities and experiences, and worked to bring them all together to have a full American Orthodox church.
In my visit, I could see that legacy play out during our time at Vigil. The parish has both Japanese and Russo-American clergy. Services, while featuring Russian-style singing, are in English. The neighborhood has quite a few different ethnic restaurants, including Afghani and Mediterranean. The parishioners who stood next to me in the choir were young people, mostly transplants, who converted to Orthodoxy in their mid-twenties. (We all ate sushi together after Vigil.)
Being in the same space that your church’s forefathers were is a powerful connection. Before this last year, I had never been in a place where a saint had once been. To learn of those connections, and to engage with history, is one of the joys of being Orthodox.
This was very powerfully felt when I was invited to join some of the parishioners as they rang the church bells for Vigil. The bells, initially commissioned by Tsar Alexander III, are one of only a couple of remaining sets remaining from that era; most were melted down by the Soviets in the anti-Orthodox frenzy of the revolutions. I followed everyone up to the tower, put headphones on, and taped about 40 seconds’ worth of ringing.
Apart from the sonic energy of the bells, and how they could be heard around all of Pacific Heights, what was really moving was that, in an era where bells are often timed and electronically controlled, these bells were rung in the same fashion as they might have been 100 years ago. The other thing that was amazing was that young people- the generation that people claim to be self-centered, entitled, and unable to do things for themselves- were the ones to be part of bell-ringing, singing, serving and other efforts in the parish.
Some of them were only Orthodox for around a year, while others were in the Church for longer. The energy was very noticeable, and it reminded me of my early days as an inquirer in Bowling Green, sitting on an unfinished floor eating a parishioner’s famous taco soup and listening to Fr. Alexander Atty teach about the church that I- along with many of my friends- would eventually join.
For me, that memory was of something that happened nine years ago this month. I found out, as I was writing this piece, that nine years is as long as St. Tikhon’s time as a bishop/archbishop in the United States. In that time, 15 parishes became 70. Seminaries were founded. A variety of cultural groups came together as one community.
Needless to say, a lot happened. Yet, in spite of lots happening in such a time, it’s still only possible to scrape the surface. And sometimes that happens through something as simple as bell-ringing.