I was baptized into the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada as the infant daughter of a UOCC father and a mother who had never stepped into an Orthodox church until her wedding day (a day she “hated,” she confessed to me in her nineties: “all that religious folderol”). Mother was the daughter of working-class atheists, dad a high-minded skeptic of Orthodoxy though also faithful secretary, treasurer, editor and chair of various church organizations.
Yet there our family sat every Sunday in a pew of the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral of St John the Baptist in Edmonton, my sister and I understanding almost nothing of what was being said and sung (no bilingual Liturgies in the 1950s and 1960s) although we mastered the enunciation of the Lord’s Prayer through sheer mimicry nor did we receive much spiritual enlightenment in Sunday school and catechism class, likewise unilingual. At home we all spoke English exclusively.
I stopped attending church services when I moved out of home in 1965 and by the 1970s I was a full-blown feminist, New Leftist, Canadian cultural nationalist and writer. For some weeks in Toronto in the 1970s I attended classes on Marxism-Leninism at the Norman Bethune Centre that were offered, of course, on Sundays.
In the early 1980s, however, I spent months at a time in Greece, a prelude to extensive research in the Balkans and Eastern Europe. I still cannot give a reasonable explanation for why I began haunting Orthodox churches and chapels in villages and towns, and shyly joined worshippers at Divine Liturgies in Athens and Nafplion, except perhaps out of nostalgia for a childhood experience that allowed me a sense of community with Greeks, who were otherwise pretty strange to me. “Orthodox” is translated into the Slavic as “Pravoslavnyi” and means the same: “right praise” I was a baptized Pravoslavna and had a right to stand among Greeks, venerate their/our icons, help myself to the blessed bread distributed at the end of the service (Greek liturgical music is, however, one of their strangenesses) just as I used to do as a kid.
I revisited this sense of homeyness, familiarity, welcome (no one had the right to throw me out) and inner peace many times as I travelled through Roman Catholic Poland and Czechoslovakia and fled their Baroque excesses (visual and gestural) whenever I came across an Orthodox church or monastery. A darkened interior, solemn Byzantine visages of saints in their icons, haloed in gold, remnant whiffs of frankincense and candlewax: silent figures, usually women in black, move in and out of the shadows. A door in the icon screen opens and out comes the priest from the sanctuary, vested in garments reminiscent of Byzantine court dress in Constantinople , and chants “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: now and ever, and unto the ages of ages.” The people respond, “Amen,” and we begin.
In 2006 I became a paid-up member and daughter of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC) in the parish of St Elia in Edmonton. My progress to that point is told in my 2010 book, Prodigal Daughter: A Journey to Byzantium, in the closing paragraphs of which I am standing in my childhood church, in contemplation of the light of an oil lamp, hung before an icon, that never goes out.
This is a blog about my experience as a practising Orthodox Christian as I live it in parish life. This is not a confession of faith but of praxis, about what keeps me an adherent of the Orthodox Church and what drives me crazy, not unlike the pattern of any long-term relationship. It goes without saying that my words and thoughts are my own, not that of the UOCC, and for which I take full responsibility.
What Am I Doing Here?