It is important to me before I continue blogging, I tell you something about myself and why I am blogging at all on the internet.
I was born in a Communist country, baptized in the Orthodox Church as a child, and raised in the United States by very loving parents. At a rather early age, I became fascinated by churches. At that time, of course, most churches were not open for public worship. Many of them had been turned into museums, while the functioning churches were few and far between. I don’t really know what fascinated me so much about them. Perhaps, it was the beauty of the frescoes on the walls or the smell of incense. Outside of my interest in trucks, which seems to be a nearly universal hobby for young toddler boys, churches were my favorite places to go hands down.
When I came to the city in which I presently live, I was surprised and flabbergasted by the dearth of churches. Having grown up in a city and a country in which churches can be found at every street corner, it was truly amazing to me that there were so few churches around here. Due to our isolation as immigrants, my mother started to attend the local Orthodox parish. My sister and I also attended as did our father from time to time.
It was due to our church attendance that I was asked to become an altar boy. The responsibilities of an Orthodox altar boy are numerous and include cutting up blessed bread (a job that I hated with a vengeance because it was so messy), light candles and carrying them in procession, and putting incense in the thurible. Of course, these were pretty simple tasks and I really enjoyed serving for a few years. But then, as happens to so many young men, I found it to be more or less a chore to serve in the altar. By the time I had become a teenager, I had quit being an altar boy entirely.
It was during that same period of time that my mother became much more interested in her faith. We started fasting as a family, my parents’ marriage was blessed by the Church, and my father was baptized. It seemed to me that the Church had become a part of our lives, but there were other things that I couldn’t see at that time which I wished I had known.
For one thing, my mother and father are religious people, but religion for them is not the same thing as it is for me. In the country of my birth as well as numerous other Eastern European countries, religion is something that people take for granted. Some of them treat it like a superstition or do things because they have always been done that way. I know plenty of people including my own parents, who did things simply because they had always been done that way. Also, both of my parents are intellectuals. Therefore, they always questioned what they heard. In a way, it was a mixed blessing for me as a child because I also started to question things.
Although I had had contacts with Catholics sporadically in my childhood, one of the catalyzing experiences of my life came when my parents enrolled me at a Catholic school. At that time, my parents had heard that most high schools in the area did not give their students a classical education. Therefore, they wanted me to attend a school that would not only prepare me for a career, but also that made their students well rounded people. Therefore, my parents packed me into the car and we drove halfway across town to a beautiful Edwardian building that sat on top of a hill.
At that building, I met nuns that were arrayed in the traditional habits I had seen in movies like “The Sound of Music” and “Sister Act.” I also met my principal, the parish priest, who wore a long black soutane and habitually wore a biretta around the campus. I felt that I had stepped back in time in many ways.
As it turned out, however, I was downright miserable at that school. For all of its traditions and customs, I felt extremely isolated by my classmates and the nuns themselves. One of my teachers flunked me in Math because I wasn’t very good at it and then flunked me in English because she figured that I wasn’t good at either. There was also my home room teacher, the bane of my existence, who wanted to fit a square peg into a round hole. I remember how she tongue-lashed me once to the point of tears because I ate lunch and breakfast alone.
Yet there were also teachers at that school that defended me and helped me to learn my faith. There is one particular sister with whom I keep in contact to this very day. Although she is quite diminutive and quiet, she is also someone that thoroughly knows and understands her faith. One of the first Catholic books that I ever received was a book of devotions in honor of St. Philomena and the Blessed Sacrament. It is a book that I have kept on my shelves ever since although I do not use it very often.
Another sister that I knew, no longer a sister alas, worked in the print shop of the school. On most afternoons, I would go there for a couple of hours and help her collate magazines, newspapers, and booklets. The place smelled of ink, paper, and glue. Yet we managed to work together and we shared our experiences. She told me about her life in the South and I told her about life in my own country. In our own ways, we were kindred spirits because neither one of us would fit the ordinary stereotype.
Yet out of all these experiences, there was always the pleasure of going to the bookstore the sisters owned. At the time, I was always astounded by how large it was and how many books it contained. Being a reader, I was always one that was willing to dig in and read a book. But I couldn’t afford them. I used to buy small novena leaflets and the nuns would throw in holy cards for me to use. Until I went up there years later, these were my treasures.
Another important thing that occurred during my time in high school was the beginning of my devotion to the Tridentine Latin Mass. At that time, all of the students began the day with a Low Mass that was said in the chapel of the complex. The chapel itself was rather Baroque or Roccoco in nature with hundreds of hundreds of angels in all kinds of formations as well as statues of saints and blesseds. Being used to the solemnity and mysticism of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, I was not sure about what I encountered in the Catholic Church. At the beginning, frankly, I thought that Mass was one of the most boring services on the face of the earth.
However, it was not until a while later that I learned to cherish and enjoy it. Perhaps, it was because I had a missal in which I could follow along. It most certainly helped me to understand what the priest and the altar boys were doing up there. I think, too, that my daily attendance at Mass allowed me to see a style of worship that was so different and similar to my own. Indeed, many Orthodox people as well as Catholics can see mirrors of each other’s liturgies. In his book, The Liturgy of the Mass, Dr. Pius Parsch writes about some of the many similarities.
This was my introduction to the Catholic faith albeit one that was fraught with many other emotions at the same time. From this point on, my story actually gets interesting, but I will save it for another day.