Tuesday, July 3, 2012

A Pilgrimage

Here's one of the things I love about being a Leen.  On Sunday late morning, I was a bit tired after a long brick workout and the kids and Mark were feeling a bit cooped up, having spent all morning at home waiting for me.  I have the summer off from my Sunday morning church gig, which meant that we had most of the day to do something fun together.

"How about a pilgrimage?" suggested Mark.

Ever since we saw the movie "The Way" last year, we've been fascinated with the idea of completing a pilgrimage.  However, we both realize that right now for many reasons the biggies of the Camino and Fatima or Lourdes are out of the question.  Not only could we not swing it financially, but packing up two small kids and flying them over to France and then hiking 200+ kilometers would require more than a Xanax prescription and would probably counteract any graces received.  It brings to mind Erasmus' criticism of pilgrims of his time who neglected their duties to complete a long, expensive journey to the Holy Land.  The purpose of a pilgrimage is to draw closer to God, not to go into debt and be driven to drink.

So, we've been thinking of ways we could achieve something like this on a smaller scale.  Presented with a free day, we decided to take a pilgrimage down to Olympia to visit the Shrine of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at the parish of St. George Byzantine Catholic Church.  Here's their website.

The Byzantine Church, although a separate entity from the Roman Church, is in union with the Pope and the Roman Church.  Although a smaller and less vocal presence in American life than the Roman Catholic Church (I'd imagine in part due to immigration patterns over the last few hundred years), Roman Catholics are allowed to partake of any of the sacraments available in the Byzantine Church, along with several other "brother" churches.  Need a chart?  I did.

Anyway, we hopped in the car with some snacks, said a prayer together for a successful trip, and took off down I-5.  An hour and a half's worth of driving later, we pulled into a gravel parking lot of the church itself.

Little Byzantine House on the Prairie

The modest building seemed out of place in the middle of Lacey farmland, with its gold spires and bright paint.  I wasn't sure what to expect when we walked inside, but I don't think my hopes were high.  Maybe I expected when I walked through the doors I'd be greeted by the typical modest but neat small parish church, a few statues and some drop ceiling tiles with a few charmingly missing pieces.  Here's what we got instead:

It's bigger on the inside.

There is no way this blurry picture does this justice but trust me when I say these people take beauty seriously.

Father Lee, seen in the above picture talking to Mark, is the delightful and accommodating administrator of the parish, and happily walked us through the church and all the icons with some wonderful and detailed explanations.  I'll include a few here, as well as what details I can remember from our chat.  If you want more information, a helpful page about icons can be found here.

Standing in the middle of the church and looking straight up, one is greeted by a ring of icons depicting the four authors of the Gospels and looking down on us, Jesus holding the Gospel.  This is the Icon of Christ.  One of its features is a Christ with larger ears and a smaller mouth, signifying that He hears all but speaks only holy words.  Handy reminder.  More information about this particular icon can be found here.

Every Byzantine Church has a wall and doors in front of the later and tabernacle, and it is traditional to have a depiction of the Annunciation on the main doors.  In the foreground is a small table with an icon on display.  I didn't get a chance to ask much about what was here, but I'm assuming that the particular icon has something to do with the readings for the particular feast being celebrated.

On the walls on either side of the Annunciation are other icons of saints, including this Madonna and Child:

I love this.  His arm is around her shoulder and his cheek is pressed against hers, as He looks up towards His Father and clings to her robe.  She looks directly at us as she gestures to Him.

Ringing the walls of the church are icons hung at even intervals.  At first, being Roman, I assumed that they were the Stations of the Cross, but when I asked I was told by Father Lee that the Byzantine tradition doesn't include the stations.  Instead, these were all traditional icons from their rich tradition.

Here are a few of my favorites with some explanations provided by Father Lee.

The is the Nativity.  In a departure from Roman tradition, Mary has given birth to Jesus in a cave instead of a manger.  One can see the familiar cast of characters surrounding her, but underneath her are a few additions.  On the lower left is Joseph, with a worried expression as Satan in disguise as an old man tells him that the child is not his.  On the right midwives who attended the birth are bathing the Christ Child.  Midwives in the Nativity FTW!

In Byzantine tradition, one of the Sundays following Easter is devoted to the Myrrh Bearers - the women who brought the myrrh to the tomb on Sunday morning and were greeted by the Angel.  You can see the tears falling from their eyes and the grief in their bowed heads, and the angel gesturing to the empty tomb and shroud.

The Baptism of the Lord.  I especially loved the depictions of John, in his camel hair shirt and with his wild appearance.  In all the versions of him I saw, he seemed to have an unusually long neck.  I wonder if this is a nod to his eventual fate?  And look at the early church fathers in the river riding fish!

...and probably my favorite, The Dormition of the Theotokos (God-bearer).  Although Roman Catholic and Byzantine traditions both believe that Mary exists bodily in heaven, reunited with her soul as we all will be after the last judgement, how she got there is a point of difference.  We believe that at the Assumption she was assumed bodily to heaven.  My understanding is that the Byzantine Church believes that Mary "fell asleep in the Lord" and her soul was taken to heaven, and then after three days she was raised bodily.  This feast day in the Eastern rite is preceded by 14 days of fasting.

In the icon, you can see the apostles present around her.  Tradition states that they had been scattered around the world doing the work of the new Church, and were miraculously transported to her bedside to be present at her death.  Except for Thomas, strangely.  Tradition states that he shows up on a cloud right as Mary is being assumed and she hands him her mantle.  I feel like there's a skit in there somewhere where Thomas arrives late like, "Hey, guys, what'd I miss?" and asks for proof, and all the apostles roll their eyes and say, "See??  That's why we never invite you to anything!"

In the center is Jesus, holding what appears to be a small child.  It is the soul of Mary itself, held in His arms in a paradoxical reversal of the typical Madonna and Child scene.  It is a touching and effective reminder that while Mary may be the Queen of Heaven, she only is so because her own son redeemed her as well as the rest of humanity.  She rests in his hands like a child, just as he once rested in hers.

After a while in the church with the attendant kid antics, we made our way outside to the Shrine.  Caroline led the procession with her Mary.

Caroline and Tiny Mary
Our Lady of Perpetual Help is one of the oldest existing icons in the Eastern tradition.  It took me a minute to figure out that that doesn't mean the object itself - it means the particular arrangement of the figures and items in the icon.  Eastern tradition states that the icon was originally drawn by St. Luke himself while Mary was still alive, and she saw and approved of it.  More information about the history of the icon can be found here.

And here she is:

The Christ Child rests in His mother's arms, looking over His shoulder with a worried expression at the two angels Michael and Gabriel, who hold two symbols of the crucifixion.  He has run to his mother for comfort, and in His haste has lost a sandal.  His hand rests on hers, seeking comfort.  While Christ is preoccupied with this, Mary is looking at us, inviting us to look to her son.

We sat for a while in the shrine while the kids ran around the field and dug for worms.  We said some special prayers for our family, for our Church, and for the world.  We each gave each other some alone time while we took turns with the kids.

I reflected a bit on the icons that I'd seen.  In so many of them, things are happening simultaneously - old church fathers appear with the apostles, midwives wash the Christ Child at the same moment he was born.  They capture moments of eternity, moments when time is no longer linear.  The timeline is broken, and all of heaven and earth exists in a single point of time captured in the images.  In a way, this is what we experience when we attend a liturgy.  Old, ancient words unite with people light-years away, and during the sanctus we hear the echoes of heaven itself in the "Holy, Holy"as a rift opens and we experience a small piece of heaven here on earth in the form of the Eucharist.  It's a form of time-travel, uniquely available to us here on earth during our time on it.

Icons, like the objects of liturgy, are holy because of the power God grants them to become something more, to transport us to a time we don't have the capability of understanding right now.  Now I see through a glass darkly, but then face-to face.  It's the reason the way in which Jesus is transported body, soul, blood and divinity into the Eucharist is a mystery, the reason Jesus was able to redeem his own mother before she was born is strange.  It's out of our time, it's God's time.  But we get a glimpse of it when we view an icon, when we are present at the Mass.

We packed up our things, said goodbye to the little church and drove back to I-5.  Pilgrims of old believed that it was not just the destination that was holy, but the journey itself that would draw us closer to God.  It might not have been a trip across the world, but a pilgrimage in our own backyard proved to be a fine way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

End note:  The Shrine has a yearly organized pilgrimage weekend that is coming up August 10-11.  Individuals and families form around the area and from further afield will gather and camp out for a night in the field around the Shrine, engaging in food, confession, processions, games, and prayer.  If you live in the area, it sounds like an intriguing weekend!