Christ is Risen!
That awkward time of year has come when the folks back home, having just celebrated Our Lord’s Ascension, are greeting each other with “Glory to Jesus Christ,” and those of us on the Old Calendar are still shouting “Christ is risen!” with every chance we get. Yet, soon, it will be Ascension for us, and we will kiss goodbye to Pascha and all its wonderful music, greetings, and other traditions until next year. But since it is still Pascha for us here, and my last post was about Great Lent, it simply would be neither be right nor just if I skipped onto a new topic without talking about the Feast of Feasts.
I celebrated Pascha by singing the services with my choir at the large church served by the Studite monks in the center of L’viv. For matins we sang the canon of Pascha in Slavonic to the Byzantine melody (my favorite), and the stichera to a 17th century melody, so it was all very beautiful. Since everything started at midnight, by the time I had to read the Epistle my voice was nearly shot and I was very tired, so my diction was, well, not the best. Regardless of vocal and physical fatigue, we had a very joyful celebration, and as we all left the church and opened our Easter baskets, the birds had started to sing and the sun was beginning to think about coming up.
Of course, the Paschal celebrations did not end there. Bright Monday featured Divine Liturgy with my bishop and a festive breakfast with some out-of-town friends, one of whom brought some delicious and much sought-after cheese pascha (which is apparently unheard of in Western Ukraine). Bright Tuesday featured my choir singing a hierarchical liturgy, and then the baptism of a chorister’s newborn. From there we took the show on the road, as they say, and embarked on the two-day drive to Rome.
Our trip to Rome was a pilgrimage-vacation; we walked though the city and saw different sights, ate gelato, took pictures, and, of course, sang in every church and basilica that we entered. We were invited to sing services at various Ukrainian parishes in Rome. In Rome the two calendars are both used among the different Ukrainian communities, so on Sunday morning we sang liturgy for Myrrhbearers Sunday at the Basilian monastery parish, and later that day we turned the calendar back a week and sang liturgy for Thomas Sunday in a chapel at the basilica of St Mary Major. (I call this “liturgical time travel.”)
On our first full day in Rome we made the obligatory visit to the Vatican, and on the second day we took a day trip to Assisi. I always describe Assisi as the most peaceful place on earth, and especially after the rush and chaos of tourism in Rome it definitely seemed that way. The old city of Assisi is a maze of narrow streets amid a cluter stone buildings with red tile roofs, spilled out on the side of a fairly steep hill. The region around the city is simply gorgeous. Behind the city is a forested mountain. From the top of the town one can sit for hours and look out at the valley stretching out before him, watching cars in the distance make their way between fields of olive trees and other crops, and listening to the simultaneous ringing of bells from five different churches. Peace and beauty are two things which, to me, seem intrinsically related. While peace is the presence of God, beauty is, as I describe it, like the fingerprints He left on creation when He formed it. In a place as beautiful and peaceful as Assisi God’s presence seems to permeate everything. It’s a simply wonderful feeling, and it gives one the desire to say, like the apostles, “Lord, it is good for us to be here. Let’s set up tents and never leave” (slight paraphrase of Matt 17:4). Just like with any retreat at a monastery, which for a certain time is good and beneficial, unless one is a monk there, one must leave at some point so as not to shirk his responsibilities in life. Thus, after a few short hours, we got back on the bus and headed back into the hubbub of the real world.
On our way back I was struck by one thing in particular. Our choir has the custom of always praying when we are in a holy place, and in our tradition we pray by singing (even more so when speaking of members of a choir). Thus, when we entered these old churches in Assisi we sang some appropriate hymns from our tradition: at the tomb of Saint Claire we sang the troparion for a venerable woman; in the basilica where Saint Francis is buried we sang Blessed is the man who does not walk in the way of the wicked. Yet when we sang in all these beautiful old churches, despite the ever-present signs demanding silence, despite the fact that no one there understands Slavonic, and despite the fact that surely a good portion of the people there were present more as tourists than pilgrims, the people there were neither disturbed by our singing, nor did they clap or treat it as a concert. Rather, they seemed join in our prayer and appreciate that we were there.
Five years ago I lived in Rome for three months on a study abroad program in college. Needless to say, my few months in Rome was a very significant period of time in my life: among other reasons, I grew a lot, experienced a lot of new things, made some dear friends and wonderful memories. It was during my time in Rome that I decided to enter seminary to become a priest. Unlike other far-away places, I was in Rome that once, and hadn’t been back until now. This time around I saw Rome with new eyes, and I was met with a contrast difficult to put into words. Once such experience was at the Russicum. When I lived in Rome I went to church at the Pontifical Russian College. At the time I was just a college kid and fairly untraveled in the broader Eastern Catholic world, and so the Russicum made a big impression on me. I loved the liturgy there, and I loved hearing the seminarians sing so beautifully in Slavonic as they stood in a semicircle around the klirosi. This time around I went to the Russicum with my choir, and though we weren’t there for any liturgical services, we did stand at the klirosi and sing in Slavonic. It was a very strange feeling to be on the other side of the same situation. God is good!
Another situation of this type concerns language. When I was in Rome before I was with Americans, so all our tours and classes were in English, and in the side we dabbled in Italian. This time around I was with Ukrainians, meaning our tours and everything was in Ukrainian, and though I attempted to use the little bit Italian I once knew, I discovered that I have forgotten it all. What was strange about this was being with a group speaking my second language (as I don’t think I speak Ukrainian all that well), but in an environment where the local language is a third language, making me feel much more competent in Ukrainian than I normally feel. Yet acting as translator just makes everything confusing, and I found myself speaking Ukrainian to the Italians, and English to the Ukrainians, and overall not helping anyone.
Now we are back in Ukraine, the semester is almost over, and I am in the middle of final exams. Spring is well underway and it will soon be summer, meaning more adventures of various types.
Pray for me.
Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, princes and leaders of the apostles, pray for us! Saints Francis and Claire of Assisi, pray to God for us! Saint Tarcisius of Rome, pray for us!
~Philip, a subdeacon
(Saints Peter and Paul were martyred in Rome on the same day (June 29th). Each has a basilica dedicated in his honor, and the basilicas have their relics. We visited both of these basilicas. I have written about Saint Tarcisius in an earlier post. When wandering in Rome I was very blessed to happen upon the church where his relics are kept.)