In Their Footsteps
Friday night Lenten services always bring back memories for my mother and father always made it a point to take their three sons to church. It was difficult not to attend for on those quiet nights before Easter as my grandfather, Father Joseph Mihaly, needed altar boys to serve. It was usually both Billy and Sergie Bilcheck and I who would dress in our white altar boy cassocks and wait patiently for the service to begin as the sound of rushing trains occasionally filled the night air.
As we stood quietly under the watchful and saintly eyes of our beloved ‘Aunt’ Helen Rowland, we could see the congregation slowly fill the church, walked up the aisle to a small stand called the tetrapod, bless themselves, kiss the glass covered icon and find a seat in one the pews. As the church began to fi where a large icon sat. There, before the tetrapod, each man, woman and child would bless themselves and kiss the glass that protected the Holy picture of a saint or Christ Himself. After each parishioners would sit quietly in the simple wooden pews or light candles while placing coins or wrinkled dollar bills into wrought iron candle stands.
Soon Billie, Sergie or I would help prepare a chalice, called a cadillo, held by a series of a plated metal chains, holding it just high enough so my Grandfather could place a spoonful of incense on a burning charcoal, lit but a few seconds before. My Grandfather would then take the cadillo and walk through the church praying and incensing the icons and everyone. With each swing of his arms you could hear the gentle rattle of the cadillo chains as the pungent incense lifted itself around and above our heads in a meandering cloud of sweet mist. With each swing of the cadillo the people would bow their heads and bless themselves, forehead to chest, to right shoulder to left in Eastern Orthodox fashion.
Looking back now, I was mesmerized by the older men and women of the church, those who attended these Friday services, the men with their buzz cut cut hair and the women with colorful babushkas. Few knew English and those that did, practiced it with a strong Slavic accent. Many of the men worked in local factories, many in businesses that supported the large General Electric plant in Bridgeport, CT. Many shaped cold rolled steel with lathes and milling machines. There was humble, quiet strength to these people, strength I have always admired. It was this strength, too, that brought them to our church tonight and to hundred’s of Orthodox Greek Catholic churches around the nation on this quiet Friday night in observance of the Lenten season. But why were they really here?
My parents brought me up to be proud of our heritage, both ethnically and spiritually. I have learned that there is a real and profound passion to being an Orthodox Christian, a passion that goes beyond anything I have ever experienced at this or any other time of the year. For me, Lent is the most moving and most beautiful times of the year as I struggle to come to grips with my sinfulness, of how far I have fallen short in this world, how much I have disappointed God. In the midst of my sinfulness just the thought of a good, just, loving, all-powerful and forgiving God overwhelms me. How One so innocent and loving and perfect could have been betrayed and then crucified for our, my, sins always moves me to tears and enough so that I find it hard, if not impossible to sing.
There is no more poignant time of the year for me. On these holy nights we turn out the lights and sing a very moving Lenten hymn. As a child I attended many such services week after week, enough to have my grandfather’s voice beautifully echo within me as he sang the Preterpe. This is a good time of the year, as well, as beautiful and cherished memories of deceased relatives and friends fill me with memories of laughter and joy. Of love and faith. How blessed I have been to have known them all.
Our faith is more than prayers and holidays. It is more than just sermons. It is a faith of all the senses as Father Peter and other priests have said many times. We are called to give to the Good Lord, our total and undivided love. It is on these Friday nights that I have realized more than ever, the nature of our faith. It is humble and irrepressibly strong, a strength that can never be denied or defeated. I find it hard to express the feelings I have when I think of our ultimate relationship to God, His gentle and loving nature, His all-powerful essence and immutable presence. For me, to sit and think of my relationship to God, Jesus Christ, as a mortal and imperfect creature, I am overcome with emotion. I, like many, have seen the miracles of the tearing icon and have my own personal experiences from which to draw my belief from. For me He is very real and will always be.
The trains still rush past our church on those Friday nights, as do the same cars using Broadbridge Avenue as a short cut to some unknown destination. I am older now, much older and church and family and God mean much more to me now than it ever did. I do not know if those older members of our church with their short cut hair or babushkas felt or thought the same way as I did or do now. What I do know is it is their unconquerable faith and strength that has guided me as an Orthodox Christian, been a role model for me, has moved me, like so many others, to preserve our Orthodox Christian faith. It is in their footsteps, the footsteps of our ancestors, that I try to follow, footsteps of those who joyously and steadfastly sacrificed so much that we too might know the Blessings of our beautiful Orthodox faith and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.