Warming Up

Ascension Thursday, 17 May, 2007

It was a damp morning in Moscow, but I was little aware of my surroundings. I think it is Father John Whiteford's blog that mentions our busses having had a police escort as we made our way through Moscow traffic (about the worst I've ever seen, and I grew up in Metro NY, and have experienced L.A., SF-Bay Area, Chicago, D.C., and Boston!). I did not notice them. My attentions were focussed inward.

The road to this day was long and bumpy. For years, I participated in debates -- some of them rather nasty -- about ROCOR's purpose, its path, and its promise to Russia. I am not sure why I allowed myself to get caught up in the debates. My family had always positioned itself apolitically: in the contentious 60s and 70s, when it was "Metropolia" vs. "Zarubezhnaya Tserkov," my grandfather worked for both, teaching music at St. Sergius High School in the Synodal building and at St. Vladimir's Seminary in Crestwood. The former was headed by Archimandrite Anthony Grabbe, and the latter by Protopresbyer Alexander Schmemann. The former's father, then Protopresbyter George Grabbe (later Bishop Gregory) baptized me, and the latter's son, Serge, is my godfather. My own father spent more than a quarter century as the choirmaster at the Synodal Cathedral, watching laypeople, priests, bishops, and even metropolitans come and go. He never took a stand on any church politics. His mission was to go to church, do a good job in contributing to the divine services, and go home without engaging in any debates about what he viewed to be side issues.

But I began to engage in online discussions. This is probably largely because I wound up living in Berlin, Germany, far away from all that I knew and everyone I loved. I began to monitor the world I'd left behind as best I could via the Internet, and what I saw was not pretty: people saying the nastiest, most scurrilous things about Vladyka Lavr, whom I'd known since infancy (my grandfather conducted the choir when he was consecrated a bishop, and when he was transferred from Synod to the Holy Trinity Monastery, my family would visit him in Jordanville every summer). It was shocking, and the accounts that were published about events in Synod did not match those of my family and trusted acquaintances, nor my own experiences when I was there. My conscience did not allow me to remain silent.

I was not always enthusiastic about the Moscow Patriarchate. Being in Europe, I had many opportunities to interact with "MP" clergy, some of whom I admired, and some of whom I found difficult to respect. I shared all of my thoughts, online, and with several of our bishops. In this way, I somehow participated in this process of reunification, which, in restrospect, I view as an evolution. I think it is true that mutual respect and understanding grew slowly -- sometimes very slowly. I know that my own heart and mind were challenged and that I ultimately found myself more open, and more in awe of what it meant for the Church Outside of Russia to be at peace with the Church of Russia.

And now, there we were, arriving at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. It was 7:30 a.m., cool and damp, the kind of morning one might prefer to spend snuggled in bed. But, to our amazement, the entrance to the cathedral's grounds had a line of people, hoping to get into church for the service. This line extended down the block, as far as one could see, and it was not just a bunch of babushki! Men, women, teens, old people, middle-aged people, students, children. An entire cross-section of society, some of whom must have begun lining up at 6:00 a.m. or earlier to be at the front of such a throng. I cannot imagine such a line for anything other than a sale of some trendy electronic toy or a pop concert in the U.S.A.

We were brought inside and upstairs, and almost immediately happened upon the choir from Trinity-St.Sergius Lavra. There was Archimandrite Matfei, the legendary choirmaster.

I had long admired him, and here he was! My grandmother had given me a letter to deliver to him, and I took the immediate opportunity to do so, suspecting that, after the long service, I would not have another chance. He remembered her -- or pretended do, though I have heard that his memory is amazing, and bowed as he asked me to convey his warm regards to her.

The greeting of Metropolitan Laurus -- a unique occurrence when the Patriarch is serving -- was scheduled for 9:15 a.m., so we had 90 minutes to wait. We all wandered around a bit, watched the masses of people assemble, observed the camera crews and reporters setting up... It became apparent that we would not be warming up as a choir or rehearsing at all before we had to sing the Megalynaria, or "Zadostoink" of the feast. Any singer familiar with the Turchaninov setting of this hymn knows that it is a vocal challenge -- pitched highly and not a good tune to attempt with cold vocal chords. I decided to descend to the depths of the cathedral and search for a semi-private spot where I could warm up.

The time arrived at last for us to gather on the risers and get ready to sing. We were surrounded by microphones, TV cameras, reporters and crewmembers. It was unlike any church service I'd ever been at -- and I have had the fortune of being at many historic church events, including the ROCOR Glorifications of Blessed Xenia, the New Martyrs, and St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco.

From our vantage point, we could hear the thunder of the large bell, but I could not really make out the trezvon.
Still, we all knew that Metropolitan Laurus would be there any moment. My heart squeezed as I took my place, next to Ludmilla Pitaleff, a soprano with the most beautiful, silvery-lilting voice (standing next to her makes it so easy to sing and inspired me to produce my best efforts!). We could hear the deacons (everybody had to be miked in that vast place) and it was time to begin...


Meg said...

I am enjoying all of this *so* much. Just in case you had any doubts about posting all of this -- please keep posting!

Fr. John Whiteford said...

I am grateful that you did choose to speak out. It is one thing when converts, such as myself, speak out. It is another when someone with such deep family roots in ROCOR voice their opinion.

I have heard many ROCOR old timers express the attitude that your family had… which was to ignore the divisions as much as possible, while external factors had left things at a stalemate… and at that time, I think that was a good attitude to have. But when the opportunity for reconciliation presented itself, there was a definite need for people to stand up and support it in the face of the vocal minority that was trying to shout it down. Thank you.

Meg said...

You know, that's a good point that Father John makes, about the point of view of someone with "such deep family roots in ROCOR." Makes this blog doubly important.