Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Consecration of the New Church at the Monastery of the Dormition

Fr Roman, Mother Abbess Gabriela (w/pectoral cross) and the sisterhood with the new church under construction in the background.

Dear Parish Faithful,

 The monastery was founded by three nuns from Romania, in a desire to pursue missionary work and spread Orthodoxy further into America. This vision had to be fulfilled through a monastic structure; not by importing or recreating a glorious past, but by drawing on the traditions of the past that keep alive the Orthodox faith.

(The nuns of the monastery)        

By the grace of God, presvytera Deborah and I, together with fellow-parishioners Jennifer Haynes and Amanda Wheelock, were able to travel to Rives Junction, Michigan, for the consecration of the new church at the Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery which has been located there since 1987.  Hence, the consecration of the new church coincided with the 25th anniversary of the monastery’s establishment.  I am not able to estimate crowd sizes very well, but together we guessed that there were around five hundred faithful – clergy and laity – assembled together for the event.  It was a memorable event for the nuns of the monastery , and we rejoice that we were able to participate in the consecration/celebration together with them.  The beautiful natural setting of the monastery; the warm embrace of the mothers and sisters; and the spontaneous fellowship with one’s fellow pilgrims increased that sense of rejoicing threefold.  It was good to be there!

Having arrived well into the evening on Friday – just about when the Vigil was drawing to a close – we were up bright and early for the cycle of services that would  mark the consecration itself.  There was a definite splendor and liturgical fullness to the Service of Consecration and the Divine Liturgy to follow, for there were four bishops con-celebrating – led by Archbishop Nathaniel – about twenty-five priests and six deacons, and a host of sub-deacons and other servers. The mothers and sisters of the monastery provided the choir, together with other visiting nuns and monks.  From the initial procession of the holy relics from the old chapel to the courtyard of the new church, through to the dismissal of the Liturgy, the services stretched over a five-hour period.  Orthodox stamina, developed over years of liturgical experience, served everyone very well, for clergy and laity alike stood throughout the services.  I was invited to serve and brought along my vestments.  However, one thing caught me off-guard, so to speak, and tested whatever stamina I may have had to the full.  Except for the consecration of the altar table and the interior of the new church, we were outdoors for at least four of those five hours – and the temperature in Michigan probably did not reach 50 degrees on Saturday!  Clergy vestments can be burdensome on a hot summer day; but they provide scant protection from a chilly day outdoors.  Mercifully, it was not a windy day, but even the slightest breeze seemed to penetrate to the bone, and thus remained most unwelcome.  We were all in it together, and that collective effort was most helpful.
Still, it was indeed a challenge to remain attentive and prayerful, when thoughts of endurance impinged upon the mind!

However, in addition to the intense and expressive prayer that so characterizes Orthodox worship, the mind could find rest elsewhere on this crisp Fall day.  I briefly alluded to the beautiful natural setting of the monastery in south central Michigan, and it would be difficult to over-emphasize that beauty which is intensified precisely during the Fall.  Though located near a country road that has its periodic traffic, the monastery has a definite rural setting that already in itself is a relief from the urban setting most pilgrims briefly leave behind.  We fail to realize the extent to which one can miss a peaceful environment until you are in the midst of one. The clusters of magnificent trees that collectively stretch as far as the eye can see, resplendent with a variety of vivid and vibrant Fall colors – flaming red, bright orange and golden yellow - not only surround the monastery grounds but seem to enfold those grounds with a protective embrace.  In some mysterious manner, one can sense the participation of the natural world in the ongoing prayer of the monastery that in turn hallows those grounds.  With its well-tended gardens and flower beds thoughtfully placed throughout the monastery, the nuns manifest a deep respect and sense of stewardship for the world of nature that we can easily lose sight of. Here, that intuitive longing for the restoration of harmony between God, human beings and the natural world seems to be within one’s grasp.  “O Lord, how manifold are Thy works; in wisdom has Thou made them all!

The new church now stands at the very center of the monastery grounds as it will be at the center of the spiritual life of the community, filled with daily prayer rising to God as incense in His sight. Further, it is now at the center of that protective embrace of the natural world described briefly above.  In that setting there is a real grandeur and beauty about it. The new church at the Dormition Monastery was designed in that unique style that is characteristic of Romanian Orthodox church architecture, I believe going back well into the medieval period of that country’s Orthodox Christian history. This is a beautiful temple truly raised to the glory of God.  It has been constructed and adorned with great care and love.  The interior is decorated with fine examples of classical Byzantine iconography. It is that “sacred space” that is consecrated – offered to God – as the dwelling place of God that also serves as a foretaste of the beauty of the Kingdom of Heaven.  It is thus a fine example of that Orthodox intuition of the saving power of beauty.  There are some “finishing touches” yet to be completed, so I eagerly anticipate my next return visit to the monastery to see the church in an even more completed form.

The consecration of a new church can be a rare experience for many of the faithful.  It is an elaborate service that is comprised of processing around the new temple three times with the holy relics that will eventually find their resting place in the new altar table, accompanied by prayer and scriptural reading before actually entering the church.  Once inside the church, the concentration is on the new altar table that is essentially “baptized” – or “consecrated” - by being washed with holy water and anointed with blessed oil.  The holy relics are then sealed with a hot wax into the new altar table and the altar table is “robed” or “vested” with a beautiful new cloth prepared for that purpose.  The walls of the church are also anointed with a blessed oil and sprinkled with holy water.  But there was one very special event that was certainly a splendid “surprise” for many of the faithful.  According to what I was told was a Romanian tradition, every person present at the consecration – men, women and children – were blessed to enter into the sanctuary behind the iconostasis, and encircle the newly-consecrated altar table.  Since women are not usually blessed to enter the sanctuary – except for those with a special blessing, usually within a monastic community – this was indeed a unique opportunity. Presvytera Deborah was deeply moved by the experience.  It was the first time she had been blessed to enter the sanctuary in her entire life. 

At the banquet to follow, Fr. Roman spoke of the role of the monastery within the life of the Church at large.  He reminded us that the monastery is not “owned” by the nuns.  Their names do not appear on any of the property deeds.  The monastery is open to any of the faithful, or to any interested inquirers into the Orthodox Faith or monastic tradition.  As the beautiful new brochure that serves to introduce the monastery to the outside world simply states:  “The first major activity of the monastery after prayer is hospitality.  St. Paul says:  Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some have unknowingly entertained angels.” (HEB. 13:2)  The monastery thus belongs to the Church – the living and breathing People of God who comprise the one Body of Christ, in service to the one Head – our Lord Jesus Christ.

This is the perfect place to retreat to even if briefly.  The Dormition of the Mother of God Monastery will remind of us are calling and vocation as Christians in a world filled simultaneously with both temptations to abandon our vocation and inspiration to fulfill that vocation with ever-greater commitment and intensity.  Our parish of Christ the Savior/Holy Spirit Orthodox Church has established a strong bond with Mother Gabriela and the other mothers and sisters of the community.  We are fully committed as a parish to continually strengthen that already-existing bond.  Participation at this last weekend’s consecration of the new church there by a representative group from our parish was one more step toward that goal.