As I watched my Old Calendar friends celebrate the feast of Theophany, a lot of my thoughts went to ten years ago, when I celebrated my first of several outdoor water blessings with a group of mostly Russians and Romanians. We were at the Anglican seminary on Memorial’s campus at that time, and Vladyka (then the newly-appointed Bishop- now Archbishop- Irenee) was visiting our parish to celebrate the feast with us, as well as perform baptisms.
At that point, I had been a full member of the Church for about six months, and part of the mission for about four. Shifting from a mostly young, ex-evangelical Southern Antiochian parish, to a largely Russian and Romanian OCA mission that had a priest 6-8 times a year, was not an easy transition for me. It was entirely different being in an isolated mission on an island in the North Atlantic. Most people spoke their native tongues at church, and there were not many native English speakers. I had gone from weekly liturgies and largely filled Saturday Vespers to only a few people being at readers’ services (though liturgies were often more full, they didn’t come very often). I was feeling extremely isolated from the community I had built up; I had very few people to talk about the faith around the coffee table, and the rigorous discussions about faith, life and culture that we had as a mission church in Kentucky were not a major part of life at the new parish. I felt alone as a new Orthodox Christian, even to the point where I remember telling at least two clergy that I felt like I was living in a desert. I was struggling to a point where I was starting to question my decision to join the church. It was an extremely tough askesis to endure at such an early point in my Orthodox faith journey.
Enter my now-wife, a recently returned Catholic who sang in the choir of the Basilica in St. John’s. A couple of weeks before that, we mutually decided to get married over dinner at the Stavanger Road Swiss Chalet in St. John’s. (We’d been dating for six weeks at that point.) I was telling Jen about how I was having a really hard time adjusting to things, and that I was thinking about joining her at the Basilica, so that we could be part of the same church.
Something in her, however, felt drawn to join me. She saw how much it meant to me, and she wanted to see it for herself. There was no question about it; she just jumped in.
It just happened that the first weekend she was able to come to services, was Theophany weekend with Bishop Irenee. She endured the services’ mix of English and Slavonic, and then the biggest spectacle of the weekend: the outdoor blessing of the waters. I had previously read about the Russian tradition of going into the pond, and I had been mentally preparing myself for having to do so. Ultimately, however, the lake was frozen over to a point where the best that anyone could do was to throw a large rock into the ice and create a hole large enough to scoop lake water out of.
And scoop lake water they truly did. One by one, the men in our church began pouring blessed lake water in 5-gallon Home Depot buckets over them, saying “In the name of the Father…(wince) Aaaammiiiin!….” They were challenging themselves in a way I had never seen before. It was a test of faith, courage and tolerance to vulnerability. One person, who was from Arctic Russia, undressed to his swim shorts, and poured three large buckets over himself. I had never seen anything like it in my life.
When it was my turn, I removed my coat and sweater, going bare from the waist up, and had our subdeacon pour the water over me. I remember it being almost shocking to feel the water- which was warmer than outside!- against my back, once, then twice, then three times. Jen, not knowing what to do at the time but being a curious onlooker, applauded. Which was fair, considering it was around 9F outside. Smartly, Jen also brought a blanket for me, and I was able to warm up quickly before going inside. I did not regret challenging myself to the whole process at all.
When we got inside to the chapel, where several people remained during the outdoor blessing,
I sat down to have a warm cup of tea. (I could always guarantee a good, warm cup of tea in the Queen’s College dining area.) Next to me sat Vladyka. I had only met a bishop once before, but had never sat down with one before. Vladyka smiled, his eyes being very gentle and his presence calm. I was very fond of his visits during my time in Newfoundland, and how he always seemed to take everything in and listen.
Out of nowhere, a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka appeared on the table and landed with a confident-sounding plop. Our subdeacon then said “Nic, fill your glass….your girlfriend will drive!” Over the next hour or so, I have absolutely no idea how much vodka went into my system, but it was warming, the community was good, and the feast was joyous. Jen definitely drove home; that was going to be a given. (How often can you say that you’ve shared a bottle of vodka with a future archbishop?)
For Divine Liturgy, we were fortunate to have a baptism of a new baby boy whose parents were Russian, and Jen and I were there for the baptism when all of a sudden, Vladyka asked the couple, “Where are the godparents?” They replied, “They are not here,” because they lived away from the area. All of a sudden, I saw myself pointed at, and being summoned to come forward. I was going to be the proxy godfather for this baby, whose name I do not even remember, but who will always have a place in my memory. I just stood there, holding him, doing what I could. According to Jen, that moment was the first spark that she had about us someday having children.
There were a lot of sparks that Theophany weekend. What was really beautiful about all of it was not only the community that arose from it, but also the fact that it was the night in which I started to feel like part of the community in St. John’s. All of the women fell in love with Jen almost immediately, taking her in like a group of mother hens. They begged her to sing in the choir, and they always expressed great joy in seeing her when we came to services. When she became pregnant with Mari following our wedding, they were constantly helping us, and especially her, with making sure she had what she needed.
It was ultimately what kept me going in my first wave of post-chrismation faith struggle.
Sharing that feast day with my future spouse was a taste of things to come; the frozen lake has been replaced by a three-parish blessing of our city’s river, a pan-Orthodox Vespers service, and a group gathering of the faithful each January.
We’re cold, and struggling to stay warm while chanting, but the warmth nonetheless remains.