Friday, April 25, 2008

A Holy, Holy Friday

Today is Good Friday for those of us in the Eastern Orthodox Church. We call it Holy Friday. For reasons that I can never quite remember involving the moon and the date of Passover, our Easter, which we call Pascha, can fall anywhere from the same day as to a month and a half later than Western Easter. This year it is the latter.

Over the last six years, my practice of Orthodoxy has been challenged. My kids came into the picture and changed everything. Before I had children, it was easy for me to be Orthodox, at least on the surface. There are a lot of services, but they are beautiful and nourishing and follow a lovely rhythm and pattern. I enjoyed church for the most part, and found it fairly easy to attend regularly, participate in services and church life, and, all in all, to be a "good member" of the church. As I said, my children have changed all of this. To be precise, they have smashed it to pieces.

Attending church is a burden to me now. I do not enjoy it at all. I like visiting with people at coffee hour. I am glad I am able to take communion. I am happy that I am exposing my children to church. But I am not able to pay attention--I can't listen to the words or appreciate the beauty of the services. I am in the back, sweating as I chase Henry around or attempt to hold nearly six year old Luke. I am asking Luke no, please not to sing his own version of the trisagion hymn that involves the word poop. I am instructing the children on how to pop the whole cracker in their mouths so it doesn't make an annoying crunch that makes everyone turn their heads in the middle of a quiet moment. I am running Henry upstairs to the potty at regular intervals. Craig is there, helping, of course, and thank goodness for that. But still.

I know that this isn't a new story. Every parent in church is struggling with his or her kids. I just always wonder if everyone else feels so overwhelmed and saddened by the prospect of yet another wrestling match with their children during church. It isn’t even that my kids are so bad. Their behavior is what is to be expected from energetic, spirited boys ages two and five. It is me: I can’t let go of the notion that I should be enjoying myself in some way, and that I should be contributing to the prayerful ambiance in church rather than detracting from it.

As if ambiance is really what the spiritual life is all about.

I don't know how, exactly, the experience of this struggle with the practice of my faith is affecting my interior spiritual life. I know it is what is required of me right now. But I don't know how nice I'm supposed to be to myself when we take our kids to services only on Sunday mornings, and only three out of four Sunday mornings at that. Am I supposed to be gentle and kind with myself? Or am I just a big, big wimp who is backsliding in her faith because things got a little tough? I really don't know. I haven't had, or haven’t made, a moment to really reflect upon it. I think my practice has been so meager that I'm afraid to delve into my interior life for fear of what I might find.

Last year, we attended even less Lenten services than we did this year. And when Holy Week came around, the week leading up to Pascha that is filled with services every day, we didn't go at all. Finally, when Holy Friday arrived, I decided to load the kids into the car that afternoon and fight Chicago traffic so that we could attend the Vespers of Holy Friday. During this beautiful, solemn service, the icon of the crucified Christ is removed from the cross and placed on a shroud. The priest and his helpers process around the church holding this aloft. Then, one by one, the members of the congregation prostrate themselves before this shroud and icon. Luke loves the drama and beauty of all of these services surrounding Pascha, and, traditionally, so have I. And so even though Craig couldn't come with us, and even though I was in charge of two little boys, ages one and four, I was hoping that the challenges would be worth it.

I underestimated the Friday afternoon traffic, and we arrived late. The four parking spaces in the back of this downtown Chicago church were, of course, taken. Signs on the street in front of the church posted that there was to be no parking from 4-6 pm, that cars would be towed. But I hoped that the service--which started at 2:30--would be over by then, and I figured that I could slip out a few minutes early if I needed to.

Of course, I didn’t have a working watch, since I hadn't replaced the battery that died in my watch right after Luke was born. Did I mention that having kids has introduced chaos and inefficiency into my life?

So I didn't have a watch, and the service was progressing. I was rather exhausted and sweaty, my usual state during church with my two boys. But as we approached the burial shroud portion of the service, my heart felt content. Both the boys were enraptured by the drama. We were kneeling; the choir was singing a burial dirge. I had a moment where I was actually able to meditate on the words that were being sung by the choir. I felt that God was rewarding me for struggling to make it here, that a still, small voice was saying to me, You are okay, you are loved, you are trying.

And then I heard a disorienting voice in the back of the church speaking loudly once, and then louder still, pulling me out of my moment of meditation. "Cars are being towed!" said Fr. John, the other Fr. John that was not serving. Standing beside him was his wife and my good friend Jenny.

Everyone was confused as to what he was saying and why he was talking loudly during this solemn moment of the service, and so he spoke again, even louder over the sound of the choir: "Cars are being towed out on the street. If you are parked out there, you must move!"

Someone shot a sharp look at Fr. John. Someone else said "shhhhh!" I realized that I needed to leave or I would be stranded in downtown Chicago with two little boys and no car. I was in the front of the church and so, while the priest who was serving continued with the procession, I made quite scene gathering my toys, diaper bag, and children and then rushing out of the church.

When I made it out onto the porch, Fr. John and Jenny grabbed my kids and said, "run!" I saw the tow truck driving toward my car, alone on the street. I rushed to it, hopped in, and pulled around the back of the church where all of the spaces were still taken. Of course. Because who would come to the Vespers of Holy Friday and leave before the procession with the shroud?

Fr. John and Jenny came around the back of the church and agreed that all I could do was head home. And so we drove home, me crying for the futility of it all.

But I guess it wasn't futile. There was the effort. There was the moment of peace. There were my children's rapt faces. And there was the kindness of two people who, for all appearances, weren't acting like a very good priest and priest's wife, shattering the solemn and prayerful ambiance of the service with such mundane and worldly concerns.

This Holy Friday I hope I can focus on my inner life, leaving the surface behind. And I’m carting my kids to the Vespers of Holy Friday again today, trying to leave my expectations behind. Well, I guess I have one: I expect I won’t get towed, since our parish in Columbus has ample street parking.


Beck said...

I think the very act of wrestling with our kids in the back of the church is a holy thing, this effort we make without expectation of reward. He'll behave sooner than you think, and you'll be able to listen to service once more.

Anonymous said...

Amen! Trust me, this seems like forever right now but they grow up so amazingly fast. I usually try to stand on the side of church where all the babies and toddlers are. I love the Holy distraction. Good luck tonight. Love, Mom

Jenny said...


This is a lovely, honest post. It is so good to hear you express so much of what I've struggled with since having kids. You're right--we only get the beauty and serenity now in moments, and sometimes those moments are few and far between, and sometimes just as we're experiencing one of those moments, our car gets towed . . .

Nancy said...

If you were a fundamentalist, you would Believe that God would strike down Satan's Tow Truck and deliver you from the evil parking violation. Instead, you recognize that God and the World are two different entities, with rare moments in common. Parenthood has challenged your faith; faithless as I am at the moment, I admire you for the struggle.

so yung said...


I loved this post. And thank goodness for Fr. John or you would have been crying and frustrated because of something else!

I have to admit that sometimes these stories scare me a bit (okay, alot) about becoming a parent myself. But it also give me encouragement to know that if I have similar experiences, I won't be alone and if I don't, to appreciate the "easiness" of my child (not than any children are "easy").

Now let me encourage you in return - even though you don't make it to every service, your children sound like they are "getting it" about God and Love. No amount of service attending will ever match or matter as much as the patient and nurturing love that you and Craig give so freely to Luke and Henry and to each other. (I know it doesn't always feel patient or nurturing, but it is!)

Nancy said...

I have one more thing to add here, Ser - excuse me for weighing in twice on a topic I'm highly underqualified in...I know Luke and Henry are the sons of a mathematician, but I doubt that they count to 7 every week and know that it is time to go to church. They just know it is important to you, and that it is part of your family life. That is good, and it is probably enough.

I am honored to have you as Hazel's godmother! (can I say that here? :) )

struggling in ohio said...

Wow, you say what many many parents feel. Its amazing how empty it can feel as a parent, and how full it can feel as a parent.
So where did that inner life go? When will it come back? How much is it worth fighting for? What is it worth sacrificing? Why don't the parish elders/priests give us more tools/forums to deal with this? Why don't we give ourselves permission to discuss what most parents feel?