Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Pokrov Means Protection


I almost hesitate to muse on last Sunday's pilgrimage. There was a certain sanctity to the experience that calls for descriptive restraint. I have never felt closer to the origins of the Christian Church than I did at Pokrov.

Pokrov, or the Feast of the Intercession of the Holy Virgin, is a religious holiday celebrated by the Russian Orthodox Church on 14 October. The Russian word “Pokrov” has a complex meaning. First of all “pokrov” is a cloak or shroud, but it also means protection or intercession.

Pokrov is a small Russian Orthodox community that was founded in 2000. In the remarkably few years since, the congregation has grown into the hundreds and taken on a palpable vitality. To some degree all the children who roam during the service engender this feeling, but there is more to it than that. This is a liturgy that has endured--essentially unchanged--for centuries. The preservation of ritual to a degree not seen at American Catholic masses maintains the beat of a strong heart.

Now, reinforcing these rituals are doctrines I find unreasonable. For instance, I dispute the notion that making children emotionally aware is overly burdensome to parents. I cringe at a refutation of evolution on par with any in Kansas. The conservative bent of much of the literature Pokrov has compiled online reminds me of the worst versions of Catholicism. Without being fundamentalist, it seems to extend from a very narrow point of origin. That said, I felt eerily at home.

As a quick recap, the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church, originally one Christian body, suffered through a long schism that climaxed during the Middle Ages and Crusades. This break was not sudden, thanks to cultural and political differences that arose when the Roman Empire moved to Constantinople (in modern day Turkey). The Byzantine era refined an Eastern version of the Church that became less and less compatible with what was happening in Europe. Rome came to resent the growing power of the Byzantine Church, and ultimately declared its authority by excommunicating the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius in 1054. The two major points of contention between the two branches are the primacy of the pope and the procession of the Holy Spirit. In the Eastern Church it is inconceivable that one church leader should have ultimate authority over the others. As they see it, all bishops are descendants of St. Peter and have equal footing in matters of leadership. This creates frustration with the clear, top-heavy heirarchy that has its pinnacle in the Vatican. The Easten Church also cannot accept that the Holy Spirit proceeded both from the Father and the Son. To me this seems like a moot point, but apparently it was enough to break-up over.

I had hoped that an Orthodox service would feel like Catholicism, pre-Vatican II. I have no point of reference, save scattered accounts from my family elders, but there is a certain way I imagine it to be, to which Pakrov was faithful. Uncomfortably impersonal. Strictly dignified. Emotionally strenuous. My foreignness allowed me to a remove from the language--the beautiful symphony of Church Slavonic--as I would be were it in Latin. The backs of the priests during the essential mass parts filled me with longing--yes--and a sort of theatrical anonymity not available as an American Catholic. The nearly fanatic devotion of some of the congregation--constant signs of the cross, zealous kissing of icons hanging on the walls--is seen now only in traces in the habits of aged Westerners (I say this in reference to the Western Church). I felt like a post-modern child in the face of all this.

A clear distinction must indeed be drawn between veneration (proskynesis timetike) by which an icon should be honored, and worship (latreia) which belongs alone to God.
"History of the Orthodox Church"
Aristeides Papadakis, Ph.D.

And yet there was a certain familiarity. There was a sense of tradition that was not unknown to me, on some unconscious level.

After the service I was invited down into the catacombs of their basement (I should note here that the building Pokrov uses is actually a Presbyterian church that they convert during their hours of worship) and welcomed like family to a hearty meal of sliced meats, warm rice and vegetables. These I washed down with wine. Ahh, wine, that blood which flows through all of the severed pieces of His (and our) church body. For the next few hours I was engaged in conversation with people to whom I am truly a foreigner.

Estragon emigrated from Russia about fifteen years ago. That's the point at which he started watching Seinfeld. It was the one thing I could manage to learn that he truly enjoyed. Otherwise he spoke of his life as "uninteresting", even though he works construction, has a wife and kids and has lived in two dramatically different countries. He was a shy and kind man. Then I was introduced to the father, a man whose early spiritual journey is echoed by my pilgrimage. He was born into the Church of England and left it as a young man, roaming around Germany exploring various faith traditions. He found his place in the Orthodox Church. We spoke at great length about theatre, about the formation of his church and about the power of tradition and ritual. Finally I was introduced to Vladimir, another immigrant, but one with a much different history. He had lived in New York for some time, spoke much better English, and had tomes to say about philosophy, dogma and faith. He too had explored the range of Christian faiths, after having grown up in a Soviet Georgia that mocked religion as so much hocus pocus. He told me of reading Mormon and Jehovah's Witness texts, and finally coming to a crossroads at Catholocism and Orthodoxy. He eventually sided with the Orthodox views on the questions that caused the schism. He was insistent on the need for personal bonding with a particular religion--knowing it in and out, and arriving at its truths yourself.

Pokrov seeks to have open doors, through which anyone can walk. The strange thing is that they do not alter or adapt their traditions to facilitate growth. They carry on, and do not judge any who enter and join the mystery.

Are you feeling depressed? Are you grieving or suffering from the burdens of life? Then come to Pokrov, the protecting veil of the Theotokos and you will find healing, love and friendship! (from the Pokrov website)


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