Two Cathedrals, Two Saints, Many Walks of Life

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

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From Dharma Bums to Metanoia Bums: San Francisco, Beat Literature, and an Early Step Towards Orthodoxy

As odd as it may sound, Jack Kerouac played a role in my journey towards Orthodoxy.

Prior to this last week, I had never been to Northern California, and had only once before been to California, when I traveled a few years ago to Long Beach. But I had the privilege of being in San Francisco for a work conference, and had some time to wander around the city. My feet have been very sore the last couple of days, but I have had the chance to visit MoMA SF, Chinatown and the Chinese Historical Society of America, eat lunch under redwoods at a park near the Transamerica Pyramid, and ride the famous cable cars, which go right by my hotel.

There were two parts of my visit, however, that felt the most personal. The first was City Lights Bookstore; the second was my set of trips to Holy Virgin Cathedral (a ROCOR cathedral on Geary Avenue where St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco was laid to rest) and Holy Trinity Cathedral (the OCA cathedral, founded by St. Tikhon) in Pacific Heights.

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The Poetry Room of City Lights Bookstore

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The relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco, Holy Virgin Cathedral

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Inside Holy Trinity Cathedral

 

 

City Lights is famous for being a site for Beat literature and poetry, as well as radical activist literature. Its famous poetry room lives up to its reputation, and in addition to its large selection of Beat literature and poetry, the shop had a lot of reading from some of my favorite writers: Wendell Berry, Tove Jansson, and Czeslaw Milosz. I sat upstairs and read for a bit, looking through Gary Snyder’s poems; of those associated with the Beat group, I always found his work to be the most endearing, possibly because he was connected, yet off on his own.

I took a Literature of the ’60s course in college, filling my first semester of undergrad with the works of Kerouac, Kesey, Tom Wolfe, and many others. After reading On the Road, I sought out other texts by Kerouac, ultimately finding The Dharma Bums (which I admit, I read during a college chemistry class). From the age of 13, I had taken an interest in Buddhism, reading several books by Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama, and learning about the processes of meditative prayer, asceticism, and eliminating desire. So, naturally, reading The Dharma Bums, and seeing Japhy Ryder/Gary Snyder’s character be so seemingly in tune with Buddhist practice, I latched onto the book all throughout my undergrad years, and even into my graduate school days. I sympathized with Ray Smith/Jack Kerouac’s struggle to find one’s center in a world of chaos. I saw how desire could be a trap.

In reading about Thomas Merton’s interest in Eastern religion, I began to shift towards an interest in ancient Christianity, which is how I managed to be invited into Orthodoxy. As a catechumen who’d heard about Fr. Seraphim Rose’s devotion and study to Buddhism, I was intrigued by the similarities, even though I knew there were still sharp differences. I started jokingly using the term “metanoia bum” in a blog, without really thinking much about it; I wondered what Gary Snyder would be like if he were Orthodox. It ended up becoming a user name for my social media accounts.

Since I’ve been here in San Francisco, I have thought about what those terms mean. Dharma is a complicated word with multiple meanings (depending on which faith is followed), but it has to do a lot with duty, adherence to religious practices, and ultimately, the maintenance of divine order. Metanoia, rather than maintaining order, is “a change of heart,” or even “a repentance.” It’s a process of shifting.

I thought about the similarities between the two. Dharma, with its focus on order and duty, requires devotion and practice. It is possible to see why Kerouac might have sought out being a dharma bum; he seems to have been looking for order in a generation of artists and writers who openly defied order. Metanoia, rather than being an order, is a process. It implies a radical shift, and change of heart, but it’s also something that is continuous. According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, this process

…is not a mere incident or stage through which one passes and then leaves behind; rather it is an attitude which colors one’s whole life and for which, at the same time, one must struggle continually. […] It is a continuous pathway, at least in this life, a perennial striving, an all-embracing motion and not merely an occasional emotion.

As Orthodox, our willingness to struggle and change over time, out of a belief that it is impossible to truly be self-sufficient, is what makes our sense of duty and order what it is. We are not alone, and the practices that shape metanoia can help us to realize that sense of connectedness with something besides ourselves.

As I rode the bus back from Vespers, I wondered if Kerouac ever walked, or took transit, down either Geary or Van Ness. I wondered if he ever sat quietly on the bus, thinking about connectedness and the constant sense of struggle and flux. I would like to think that Kerouac noticed the juxtaposition of faiths, cultures and movements that dot the city; the same city that played a role in the Beatnik and hippie movements, was also home to some of the greatest saints of the 20th century.

It makes you wonder what Kerouac’s writing would have been like, had he shifted from being a dharma bum to a metanoia bum.

 

A leather boat

It’s June 2017, and we’re at Parish Life Conference for the Diocese of Toledo and the Midwest at St. George Antiochian Orthodox Church in Cicero. It’s Hierarchical Divine Liturgy with His Grace, Bishop ANTHONY, and I’m sitting there with my two daughters, Mari and Rosi, while my wife, Jen, is up in the choir loft singing with the PLC ensemble.

Rosi, my three-year old, is a typical preschooler in a Divine Liturgy: curious, mobile and chatty. Mari, my six-year old, is usually very spirited and energetic, but I notice that she looks really tired- as if she’d gotten very little sleep. I try to wake her up, but she struggles with being tired, and eventually lays down. I think she’s being disrespectful, and I get really annoyed with her, stressing out with what people are going to say about this young bearded father who can’t keep his kids respectful in church.

I treat it as an isolated incident. But then she suddenly gets more and more tired over the next few weeks. She starts to become more defiant, disobedient, and fatigued. She starts falling asleep more than once in a day. Eventually, it becomes at least six times a day. She starts hitting and kicking us, and saying things she would never say in her life. We are frustrated, confused, and wondering what we have done wrong for our daughter to act this way. Our families start noticing changes. She won’t leave a mall in Iowa City. She starts getting really aggressive with Jen. She eventually kicks my mom in the head. We are floored, desperate for answers, and realize that this may be a medical issue.

She starts refusing to go to church, and tries to get out of a moving vehicle. We end up in the ER at Mercy Medical Center twice; the first time we show up, the nurse looks at us like we have wasted her time. She fell down the stairs, and keeps collapsing. Labs come back fine. The second time, we take her in because we’re worried about psychiatric issues. Her scan is fine. She gets a neurology appointment, where they finally schedule a sleep study. At this point, she’s asleep most of the day, aggressive and frustrated when she wakes up, and far from herself.

One day, her blood tests indicate that she carries a gene for narcolepsy. We don’t know where it came from, and we vote not to focus on finding out. Her sleep study ultimately shows that she is entering REM sleep within a few minutes of falling asleep.

She gets diagnosed with narcolepsy with cataplexy.

At the age of six, she becomes the youngest narcolepsy patient in the clinic in Cedar Rapids, and one of the youngest in the region. No cure. This is a new life ahead of us. We were relieved to have an answer. However, we can’t get the most effective narcolepsy medication. Xyrem is only now being tested in juveniles in the US. You can get it, but it’s not covered by our insurance for kids. And it’s not FDA approved for kids anyway. Our insurance denies our entire sleep study, which is eventually waived by the clinic because they incorrectly told us we would be covered.

My daughter goes to school on Adderall and Paxil. The Adderall wires her to the point where she’s really loud most of the time, experiencing difficulty with transitioning to other things, and having strong periods of hyper focus. The Paxil counters the cataplexy, and is not as big of an issue.

Some things are fine. She goes to dance and Girl Scouts, which she loves. But school becomes an issue. She starts realizing she’s different from other kids, and she starts getting anxious about going. She starts refusing to go entirely, dropping to the ground; I have to have help from a teacher to get her into the building in order to be on time to work. Things are still getting worked on in terms of accommodation and transition.

At home, the exhaustion makes her prone to quick frustration, an inability to deal with her mistakes, and a lot of physical aggression. When in that panic, she becomes so anxious that she’s afraid of her own bedroom. She starts hitting. Kicking. Biting. Yelling at us and saying we hate her. Eventually, she comes back down, and we are able to get her to either return to playing, or go back to bed. She is scared, and responds out of pure fear.

As parents, we are worn out. We both work outside of the house. Jen is a graduate student and a sacred music volunteer at our church. I co-lead a Girl Scout troop. We’ve been cleaning Rosi’s preschool most of the semester. We have enough energy to make dinner and maybe put a load of clothes in, but not really much else.

I have tears in my eyes every single day. Sometimes they stay there, and sometimes they leave. We are trying not to see our daughter as someone who’s declining from what she was, but it is so, so hard. It is hard to witness your eldest, who loves reading, drawing, singing and dancing, be so exhausted that she is afraid of singing in her school’s choir for fear of being stared at. To be so scared of kids teasing her that she won’t go to a school she loves. To refuse to sing in the church youth choir with her friends.

I’m trying, as a father, to see the remaining sparks as an indication that she’s still with us, loving, creative and thoughtful. She was just in a production of the Nutcracker, and worked with me to earn two Daisy petals over the weekend. Her Girl Scout vest is filling up with patches. She’s in 2nd grade half of the day due to her advanced skills in reading and math. She is a highly talented illustrator for her age.

I have had to fight against those questions that lurk in my mind. Is she ever going to have a successful career? Is she going to live on her own? Will she find hope and joy in her faith? It’s really hard to work against trying to answer questions that can’t be answered. My spiritual father and I have talked much about this. I must see this as a form of askesis. A struggle. A cross to bear. I have no right to answer those questions before they’re actually answered.

Tonight, I thought of our family’s saints. My saint, St. Patrick of Ireland, was enslaved in another land as a youth, essentially losing his childhood. Jen’s saint, St. Brigid, fought for the simple right to follow Christ. St. Xenia, Rosi’s saint, was a fool-for-Christ in response to her personal trauma. And Mari’s, St. Maria of Paris, came to Christ through a lot of young struggles, only to praise God in a concentration camp.

Then there is our family saint, St. Brendan the Navigator. Beloved in Newfoundland for being one of the first Europeans to land in North America. The first Orthodox saint in Canada. One of the most loved saints in Ireland.

St. Brendan and his fellow brothers in Christ got on a boat. A curragh, to be exact. They didn’t have a clue where they were going. They floated until they made land, and then they went home. They thrived on community, and on being together in their struggle. But most of all, they thrived on prayers, and they thrived on faith. How many people are given the cross of getting on a boat, and just going?

Every challenge, to me, is a like a tidal wave. (Living for 4 years in Newfoundland, I think a lot about rogue waves, and storm surges.) It is our role to pray, to have faith, and to live in community in order to endure the waves. Sometimes the water gets in the boat, and you have to scoop it out. Sometimes the boat turns over, and you have to somehow find a way to return to it.

Some days, you have to just wake up, row, fight, and sleep.

And then do it all over again.

Through the prayers of St. Brendan the Navigator, have mercy on me.

-nic