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FINDING A HOME IN THE EASTERN RITE

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Again Magazine Number 1 March 1993 Page 22-24

FINDING A HOME IN THE

EASTERN RITE

By Father David Mustian

To be honest, I am not the kind of person one would expect to be “at home” in Eastern Rite Orthodoxy.

I was an Episcopal priest for ten years. Like many Anglicans, I joined the Episcopal Church as part of a journey—moving from a non-liturgical Church background in search of the historic Church and a sacramental life. I thought my ecclesiastical search had ended when I was confirmed in anther “High Church” Episcopal parish and diocese. I loved the silence in the Episcopal Church, the kneeling, the reverence, the “beauty of holiness,” the stained glass, the splendor of Anglican chant and majestic hymns accompanied by a fine organ. It was a good place to be in 1975.

In the fall of 1975 I entered seminary at Yale Divinity School. In 1976, the ordination of women was approved, and we also were visited by “gay rights” Episcopalians who spoke of their “gains” and hopes of future success at future General Conventions. All of this troubled me inwardly, but I honored my commitment to the Episcopal Church and was ordained in 1979. I had no intention of leaving.

THE RISING TIDE

As an Episcopal priest, I served in two communities. One was a small mission on the eastern plains of Colorado. The Church grew, but never fully resolved the question of ecclesiastical identity—a question I later saw as the plague of the Episcopal Church. In 1983, I was called to be assistant (and later rector) at a large parish near the University of Colorado. There were some good years in this parish, but conflict over churchmanship and the theological direction of the Church filled the final years. We tried to be “all things to all men” in a typical Anglican manner, using a variety of worship styles in separate services.

As the larger national Church began to move further away from ancient Christianity, I saw the results locally. We were flying to be an island of “Anglican orthodoxy” in the sea of a larger apostasy. Is apostasy too strong a word where credal beliefs such as the virgin birth and the bodily Resurrection and Ascension of our Lord are denied by some bishops without censure? Morals were also under attack. I remember a man arguing with me why his daughter should have an abortion, showing me a newspaper clipping in which an Episcopal bishop had called abortion “a moral choice.”

I went to the Synod meeting in Fort Worth in 1991, hoping it would turn back the tide of apostasy. Soon it became apparent, however, that this Synod meeting would not and could not lead to an answer of any practical nature. If the Synod stayed in the Episcopal Church it had no choice but to continue accommodating and compromising while its influence and numbers dwindled. If the Synod left the Episcopal Church it would simply become another one of the many American denominations not in communion with anyone, not with Canterbury nor with any of the historic Patriarchates of ancient Christianity. Was the whole Anglican system of “comprehensiveness” and modern pluralism fatally flawed? I began to see it as such.

LOOKING FOR OPTIONS

In this confusion and pain, I remembered some of my seminary studies where I had first learned of Orthodoxy. My professor of liturgy and sacraments had taught us Byzantine liturgy and we read Father Alexander Schmemann. The chaplain at Yale University had literally filled the Episcopal Chapel with icons, and he offered a type of daily evening Byzantine/Anglican liturgy.

I had heard of the recent movement of a group of evangelicals into Orthodoxy. I wondered if there might be a place for others sharing these convictions. Could we start an Orthodox mission? A real part of me didn’t want to be Episcopalian anymore. I didn’t want to spend so much time arguing about the faith in a losing situation, each year watching things get worse. I wanted a place where I could send my children to camp and not fear what they might be taught.

I longed for a place where the faith was orthodox, where it did not change, where my children’s children would learn the same faith I had learned. I wanted a place to worship in an ancient, sacramental, liturgical manner, and where heartfelt prayer and spirituality was welcomed and encouraged. This is why I had fought my losing battle for renewal in the Episcopal Church. So I contacted Father Peter Gillquist of the Antiochian Evangelical Orthodox Mission. From that point on, the Orthodox Church became a viable option for me. My sights were now firmly set on the Orthodox Faith.

Late in 1991, after a period of several months of study, prayer, and dialogue with Orthodox priests, I announced my resignation as rector and renounced ministry in the Episcopal Church. In January of 1992, I was chrismated and ordained as a priest in the Orthodox Church, and we began our new mission outside Boulder, Colorado. A small group of seventeen households—former Episcopalians from our previous Church— made up the initial mission.

The Lord has been with us from the beginning of this endeavor, and guided our steps wonderfully. In less than two years, our mission has more than doubled the original seventeen households. We have chrismated people from other backgrounds, from Baptist to Roman Catholic. We have a newly Orthodox family from Kansas who drive four hours to be with us at least once a month. We also have been blessed with some long-time Orthodox members, such as a family who moved to our area from Saint Nicholas Cathedral in Brooklyn. We now are looking for a permanent building or land to build on.

I can honestly say I have no regrets about my decision to become Orthodox. Every passing year and each new experience confirms the rightness of that decision, and the veracity of the Orthodox Church. Fellow priests, laity, and hierarchs have been wonderful to me throughout this time, and I am extremely grateful for their help. I have indeed found the peace and stability I sought as an Episcopal priest, and I am having the best years of my life, doing the church ministry that I had sensed a calling to do since I was a boy.

ORTHODOXY EAST OR WEST?

Looking back, one of the hardest decisions I made in this journey to Orthodoxy was not whether to become Orthodox, but whether to be Eastern or Western Rite. I am glad that my Archdiocese allows for the Western Rite. Both Rites are open to those coming to Orthodoxy from Western backgrounds, and both options are viable, and worthy of careful consideration. In my particular case, God led me to go toward the Eastern Rite. I have been fulfilled and gratified with the results of that decision, as have the people of Saint Luke Mission. The Eastern Rite has been good for us.

Initially, I had all the typical concerns about being Eastern Rite Orthodox. I was sensitive to the length of the service, the additional services (such as Saturday Vespers), and what seemed to be excessive repetition of prayers and litanies. I also considered the ceremonial practices of veneration by kissing icons and crosses, standing versus kneeling during communion, and receiving the Sacrament by spoon. How would this be received by the people of our parish? Lastly, I thought of the loss of the familiar words of the Episcopal liturgy and the traditional hymns or songs, compared with the unfamiliar Byzantine tones and hymns. Was this too much change?

On the other hand, it was obvious that we were ready for a change. We knew something was very wrong in what we were coming from, and this realization gave us an openness to learn and try new things. We were joining the Orthodox Church, and it seemed logical that there would be some new ways of worship. With time, patience, and the grace of the Holy Spirit, those new things would soon become part of our very heart and soul. Indeed, that has proven to be the case.

The old Anglican value of “liturgical uniformity” also struck me as important (how the Book of Common Prayer used to be the main thing that held Anglicans together). I wanted to worship at other Orthodox Churches and feel at home in the liturgy. I wanted our people to travel to other cities and feel at home in the Orthodox Churches, which would usually be Eastern Rite.

I also found reassurance regarding my initial concerns by visiting Saint Athanasius Church (AEOM) in Santa Barbara. Here was an Eastern Rite parish, but one which obviously stressed strong congregational singing. Some of the hymn tunes were fa­miliar. I even heard a musical instrument. My wife, who had as many concerns as me, wept as we sang the beautiful Eastern Rite Trisagion Hymn (“Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us”). I knew we were home. Later, Father Peter asked me, “Do you think this could play in Peoria?” I said, “Yes, I believe it could play in Peoria, and in Boulder, Colorado, too.”

We were able to move gradually into the Eastern Rite, because of the pastoral wisdom and generosity of our Metropolitan Philip. Today we are much more Byzantine than when we began, but the transition has moved at a natural and comfortable pace. We also feel a degree of excitement about trying to find a musical expression of the Eastern Rite that will seem fitting to the American culture. Once again, the Orthodox Faith offers a fullness and breadth of expression which is truly encouraging and heartwarming.

I have often heard from our parishion­ers how glad they are that we chose this particular path, and how they feel comfortable visiting other Orthodox Churches. Many have said how much they appreciate the richness of the worship—worship which is filled with symbolism, alive with the icons, full of pure praise and adoration of the Holy Trinity. One of the beautifully expressive prayers I have come to love in the Eastern Rite liturgy occurs just before the “Holy, Holy, Holy.” Here the priest says, “Though there stand before You thousands of archangels and myriads of angels, cherubim and seraphim, six-winged, many-eyed, soaring high on their wings, singing, proclaiming, shouting the hymn of victory…”

The richness of this liturgy is also ex­emplified to me in the majestic Great Entrance.

It involves the repeated Cherubic Hymn (“Let us who mystically represent the Cherubim. . .“), with the full censing of the Church, Gifts, icons, and people, and the solemn prayers of remembrance in the procession. We are drawn to heaven, and we are reminded of the offering of ourselves to God and the journey of our Lord to His crucifixion and burial.

Some who were previously low church­men in the Episcopal Church are now participating fully in the acts of veneration, singing or chanting, and other uniquely Eastern aspects of liturgy. A few others are still growing into some of these practices.

In my observation, the Eastern Rite liturgy, with its use of repetition, brings with it a very great depth of wisdom concerning human nature. It takes us earthbound mortals a bit of time to “lay aside all earthly cares” and enter into the Kingdom of God. Our worship is a manifestation and preparation for heavenly worship. Repetition really helps here. How can we look forward to worship forever in heaven, if we have trouble with a few hours once a week now?

We have found the Byzantine hymns to be wonderfully rich in Biblical allusions. They really teach the Faith. They can be simple and direct, and not hard to learn. Also, it has been good to discover that our music can work without having an instrument for accompaniment. Parents tell me of their little children singing some of the songs of the liturgy at home.

AT HOME IN THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

In a Bible study we had in the Episcopal Church, I used to encourage students to “think Hebrew.” Since the Bible is an “Eastern book” this advice is a helpful aid to enter into the mind and world view of the biblical writers. It was not easy, but it made the Bible come alive. Something similar is going on with the Eastern liturgy. It manifests a world view different from our present Western culture, but I believe it reflects the world view of the Bible in doing this.

I would be less than honest if I didn’t mention that it has taken much time and learning to get to where we are today. We have spent a great deal of energy producing service booklets with the music included, which has led to good congregational participation. Whatever the commitment of time and energy involved, the transition has been worth all the effort.

Indeed, we are home in the Orthodox Church and in its Eastern Rite. And I thank God for leading us to this unchanging Church!

Fr. David Mustian

Saint Luke Orthodox Mission

Boulder, Colorado