My first idea for this second post was to Blame It On Byzantium – by way of a back story to my life in an Orthodox Church – and I will get to it in a future post. But today I will tell you about a recent Sunday, as a reflection on reliving my mother’s life, to my astonishment.
I have an enduring childhood memory of being taken by my father to the Edmonton Exhibition grounds – merry-go-round, ferris wheel, cotton candy – while my mother stood chopping and frying mounds of onions at the food booth operated by the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada, Edmonton branch. (This may have been for the hotdogs, perogies/pyrohy being still far too ethnic for public offering.) It’s what women who went to church did – and cooked for weddings and funerals and served tea at Spring Teas – and so I found myself, a few months after becoming a paid-up member of St Elias Ukrainian Orthodox church in Edmonton, welcomed into the January monthly fellowship luncheon team, handed an apron, a knife and a mound of veggies to slice.
The luncheon teams are made up entirely of women, although occasionally a spouse will help with clean-up, and the team captain is responsible for the menu. Unlike the weeks of Lent when the captain has to be particularly creative to go beyond the inevitable humus and tuna fish sandwiches, January is not a fasting period, and our captain is creative with all kinds of meats and cheeses and salads, and team members contribute an astonishing variety of baking. Meanwhile, the Divine Liturgy is proceeding upstairs and we teamsters are given time out to join the line-up of parishioners receiving Communion near the end of the service.
Those staying for lunch drift down and help themselves to beverages but no food until the priest and deacon have joined us and said a prayer and blessing. They are the first at the buffet table and we lunch ladies wait until everyone is eating dessert before we fill our own plates. We do not eat with our guests but are called out by name and given a round of applause before we begin the clean up.
Do I chaff at such retro custom?
Even as I donned that first apron, I felt I was simply taking up the responsibility handed down to me by my mother and her generation: as they had served, so now would I. If this meant food preparation, I was happy to do it, hopelessly gendered as I am (it’s men, for instance, who set up the security system and priced snowblowers). Secondly, it would be churlish to refuse, given that I am now part of a community. And this relates to the fact that I am also an oblate of a Benedictine community, St Peter’s Abbey in Muenster, SK (more about that in another post), and have committed to living as best I can according to the Rule of Benedict which is deeply concerned with hospitality, as in Chapter 53: The Reception of Guests. “Once a guest has been announced, the superior and the brothers are to meet him with all the courtesy of love.”
Benedictines also live according to precepts of humility. Chapter 7: Humility. “Brothers, Divine Scripture calls to us saying Whoever exalts himself shall be humbled, and whoever humbles himself shall be exalted.” This has been a new challenge for me, this bid for a change of heart after a lifetime of taking pride in achievements and honours, burnished with a thick shellac of intellectual and emotional defiance as a feminist. I have surrounded myself with people just like me – middle-class, educated, of progressive political bent, well-travelled and usually unchurched – but most of my fellow parishioners at St Elia’s would not recognize themselves in that profile.
When I first sat on the Church Council (and I’m still there), I set myself the discipline of actually listening to the others instead of automatically thinking that I had the best ideas. (“Listen” is the first word in the Rule of Benedict.) Besides, being quiet and listening to people with decades more experience in managing the church was a humbling education: what did I know about when the carpets need to be cleaned, the altar cloths replaced and the pussy willows gathered and bundled for Easter? about which charities to support? How to help a bereaved family? Whether the Honour Guard of the Women’s Association can assemble outside the church at a funeral home? (Yes, it can.) And on and on, not to mention the long memories of feuds and hurts and disappointmentsamong people who know each other all too well. I was the newbie.
But it’s been quite a while since my fellow parishioners made a fuss that the author of “All of Baba’s Children” had joined their parish. I’m just part of the family now, and I accept that, as family, I did not choose these people individually, they came as a group with the territory, and we may not always get along or even have much to do with each other but no one can say we’re not related.
I am now also on the July and October luncheon fellowship teams. I did not volunteer, I was summoned: as we lose women to disability, relocation or death, the ranks thin and those who remain have to step up and fill the gaps. So, two Sundays ago it was my turn again. I was gathering up dirty plates and cutlery from a table when the woman seated there said, “You’re a writer, you shouldn’t be wiping tables.” I was genuinely taken aback: what did that have to do with it?