An Orthodox Education

“You sing this one.”

The head chanter points at me.

I’ve been at my parish assignment for a few months. At seminary, I’m taking my first semester of chant. I’ve been recording Matins on my phone every Sunday and practicing at home. This particular melody runs easily through my head, but I’m still nervous.

“Blessed art Thou, O Lord: teach me Thy statutes.”

That wasn’t so hard. Now the verse. I remember the ascent at the phrase “Women Disciples” and the pattern of notes descending to “tears of pity.” The next few phrases follow the pattern, and I make it to the rapid trills of “the tomb.” I get a thumbs up, and continue singing alternate verses of the Benedictions, trying to remember what I’ve been taught in Voice class: extended spine, open rib cage, exhale evenly, and use the natural space in my body to produce a clear sound.

In Old Testament class I’ve been learning what the “statutes” or “Law” of God meant to the children of Israel, how this Law became a way of life that maintained a relationship with the Creator who revealed himself to them. Learning and meditating on God’s statutes allowed Israel to join in with his work in the world.

In Patrology and Church History I’m learning how the world responded to the angelic exhortation I’ve just chanted: “Behold the grave, and understand; for the Savior is risen from the tomb.” I’m learning what it means for Christians to learn the statutes of God and to chant Old Testament Psalms together with odes of Resurrection.

During Divine Liturgy I join the altar servers. Things at this parish are done just a little differently from what I’m learning at the chapel of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology. I have to pay close attention. And I can’t forget this lesson: if you lead with your toes while climbing steps, you might not trip on your cassock.

Embracing Humility

This Liturgy, Father wants me to preach. The homily is helped a little by what I’ve learned about patristics and the early Church, but mostly by the the Apostle Paul, who reminds us that the power of God is perfected when we are weak. I have plenty of weakness to boast about, and my sermon shows it.

More opportunity for humility comes after Liturgy when Sunday School students ask insightful but challenging questions about the Acts of the Apostles. Religious Education class helps a lot here—in planning and in teaching lessons—but prayer is the only thing that can really guide me as I struggle to respond well and help these students understand their own faith more deeply.

On Thursday nights I stand in the campus chapel with other seminarians of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America, and we chant Psalms and hymns in the Arabic language we’ve studied that day. After supper, we meet again for Teleturgics and learn about the day-to-day life and ministry of the priesthood.

My wife, Daphne, and I belong to an extracurricular group, the Missions Committee, which meets every other week to hear presentations about the evangelistic work of the Church. This semester the committee has hosted a bishop from Kenya and a missionary from Albania, among others.

We live on campus. Our three-year-old, Peter, keeps busy with his playmates in married housing and comes to chapel with me as often as I can bring him. Daphne manages the household and, together with other moms, maintains a warm community in our little campus “village.” This semester she’s audited a World Religions class. Every other Wednesday the wives get together with a seasoned priest’s wife to strengthen and develop their families and ministries.

Everything we do at seminary seems to lead back to Sunday morning, where the sacraments, Liturgy, curriculum and community are united and shaped by the apparently disparate things I study and do throughout the week. I suppose that’s why this schooling is here: to form a seminarian and his family towards the priesthood in all its aspects.

While Daphne and I are here, I’d like to check in from time to time and offer some more glimpses of seminary life. If there’s anything you’d particularly like to hear about, let me know.

Please pray for all of us as we, like the Hebrews of old, strive to learn God’s statutes so that we might also proclaim, “Blessed art thou!”

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James Hargrave is a stay-at-home dad in Abbotsford, British Columbia.
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