March 26, 2014

Psalm 88 and at the funeral for a priest

O Lord, why dost Thou cast me off?
 Why dost Thou hide Thy face from me?
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up,
 I suffer Thy terrors; I am helpless.
Thy wrath has swept over me;
 Thy dread assaults destroy me.
They surround me like a flood all day long;
 they close in upon me together.
Thou hast caused lover and friend to shun me;
 my companions are in darkness.
(Psalm 88:14-18)

A few days ago writing about Psalm 86 I mentioned in passing that many psalms “assume God is (or ought to be!) listening, answering and guiding His people.” My priest from university days in Montreal—Father John Tkachuk—commented half-jokingly on Facebook, “What’s with the Lord God ‘ought to be’ listening? Where’d you loin this heresy, eh?”

Well, to take up the serious point embedded in that question, I learned it from the Psalms.  They are not afraid of genuine feelings, however “incorrect.” Today’s Psalm 88 is a good example. It is one of the daily six-psalms of matins. It is also used on Great and Holy Friday as we remember Christ’s crucifixion and burial. The psalm ends with no comforting reassurances (the verses quoted above) and it is brutally honest about feeling that God is not even listening, let alone giving answers—and he should be. Sometimes that’s just the way real human beings—even devoted Orthodox Christians—really feel once pious God-justifying thoughts are stripped away.

And yet of course there is more, as I am experiencing during Father Alexander Atty’s funeral in Louisville. What a stirring confirmation of a life of priestly service. Some forty priests, a packed congregation, led by Bishop Basil of Wichita and powerful singing full of conviction.

The funeral for a priest is a stark intertwining of the realism of death with the equally sure victory of Christ’s descent into hell and His Resurrection. Indeed, it is the canon of Holy Saturday that is sung as the priest lies in his coffin, just as we sing in front of Christ’s tomb. Flashes from the Holy Saturday and Pascha kept going through my mind as we priests stood singing around Father Alexander.

Tomb of Christ
“Do not lament me, O mother, seeing me in the tomb”

Of old Thou didst bury the pursuing tyrant beneath the waves of the sea. Now the children of those who were saved bury Thee beneath the earth. But like the maidens, let us sing to the Lord, for gloriously has He been glorified.

Do not lament me, O Mother, seeing me in the tomb, the Son conceived in the womb without seed, for I shall arise and be glorified with eternal glory as God. I shall exalt all who magnify you in faith and in love.

The priesthood is about these intertwined realities. In October 2012, Saint Tikhon’s Seminary board member David Jarrett and I had the privilege of having a long conversation with Father Alexander and Matushka Olga. It was a difficult time in their lives, but I was struck by the vision of priesthood they were living out. Father Alexander kept teaching even in the worst part of his chemotherapy, even arranging the chemo sessions around his teaching schedule. I was taking notes on what he said, and found his comments personally instructive.

I think I had a positive effect on the students and their families, at least 95% of them. We tried to parent them, to show them how a priest should live and care for his people. We wanted them to feel the love we have for them, their wives and their children….

We love the church, we sacrificed for the church, and we tried to bring the family spirit of the priesthood that we experienced in Louisville to the seminary, because this is what the Church needs. The Church needs priests who will engage with people everywhere, not just their parishioners, but in their neighborhoods, at the gas station.

For more on Father Alexander’s experience of the priesthood and carrying on through his illness, it’s worthwhile to listen Dr Albert Rossi’s interview with him on Ancient Faith Radio.

In this interview, Father Alexander also has some very practical advice about spreading the message of Orthodox Christianity, and it begins with basic parish life. He spent ten years raising funds to build a chapel for daily worship at Saint Michael’s Church in Louisville. It wasn’t easy, but once it was built and services were being held daily, he was convinced that it had a transforming effect that inspired people to worship, study and work for Christ. And they in turn inspired others to join in.

This is the medicine for the American Church:

  1. Worship every day.
  2. Learn something every day.
  3. Do something every day for Christ and His Church.

This is the recipe for church growth. It’s hard but it works.