I concluded my first week as an Orthodox Christian with a trip to the Pittsburgh area. The main reason for the trip was the fall meeting of the Ecumenical Society of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was to be held at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral. I have been an active member of the ESBVM for nearly a decade, and I usually attend the semi-annual meetings. I even gave presentations at the 2003 and 2006 fall meetings.
I drove up a day early to visit the Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City while I was in the area. I had originally planned to visit this monastery the previous week as part of my preparation for chrismation, but I just could not fit it into a week that was already packed with activity. Their limited guest facilities were already full when I scheduled my visit, so I spent Thursday and Friday nights at the nearby Beaver Valley Motel. I arrived after midnight. After a short night's sleep, I went to my car and found the battery dead. (My dome light has not been working, so I turned on the map light when I was unloading the car and forgot to turn it off.) Fortunately, I always carry jumper cables, and the man working the desk at the hotel gave me a jump, so I lost less than ten minutes.
When I arrived at the monastery, Matins, which had begun at 7:30, was already in progress. I remained in the narthex, which was larger than the nave and separated from it only by a pew on either side of the entrance. After they completed the Six Psalms, one of the nuns came out to greet me and invite me to sit in the back pew. Matins continued with the kathisma, the assigned section of the Psalter, which is often skipped or truncated in parish worship but not in monasteries. This was followed by the canon, a long hymn that has come to substitute for the Biblical canticles at Matins in some Orthodox traditions. The canon was interrrupted by two readings of spiritual advice from the writings of an elder. Matins was followed by the Divine Liturgy. Even though everything was in English, I had refrained from joining in the singing at Matins. In the Liturgy I couldn't not sing, but I kept it soft since I was at least an octave below all the other voices.
After the Liturgy, Mother Barbara, the guestmistress, introduced herself. Then I joined the priest who had celebrated the Liturgy, Fr. John, in the dining room with one of the nuns, who made us coffee and toast. Fr. John, who was originally from northern Indiana, is now the priest of the local parish, St. Elias. After breakfast I spent the morning in the library reading a book I found on the shelf there, Liturgy and Architecture, by the French Catholic scholar Louis Bouyer. At lunch I sat next to the abbess, Mother Christophora, at the head of the table. Unlike monasteries I had visited previously, where everyone eats in silence while one monk reads, here we conversed as we ate. Even though it was Friday, a fasting day, the food was quite good. After buying a few things in the gift shop and reading some more Bouyer, I returned to the dining room to make a cup of tea. As I was drinking it, one of the sisters brought me a piece of apple pie, which was delicious. I took my dirty dishes to the kitchen and found a nun and another guest shelling chestnuts. When they both wondered if they would finish the job before they had to run off and do other jobs, I said, "Give me a knife!" We finished early, and I returned to the library to resume reading.
On Friday it is their custom to follow Vespers with an Akathist, during which they intercede for youth whose names have been submitted in prayer requests. This day they sang an Akathist to St. Paraskeva in honor of her upcoming feast day. I was given a stack of slips of paper with the names of young people, which I read quietly as the Akathist was sung. After an un-eventful night at the motel, I returned in the morning for the first hour of Matins, and then headed for Pittsburgh.
The topic of the ESBVM meeting was Marian apparitions, in honor of this being the 90th anniversary of the Miracle of the Sun at Fatima, Portugal. The meeting began with the viewing of a new DVD on the apparitions and message of Fatima. After lunch, we heard from three speakers: Fr. Brian J. Welding, a Roman Catholic priest, spoke about criteria for Vatican-approved apparitions; Fr. Gregory Jensen, a Greek Orthodox priest, spoke about apparitions in the Orthodox tradition; and the Rev. Dr. Judith Marie Gentle, an Episcopal priest, spoke on the significance of the Fatima apparitions and messages. Their talks were followed by a too-short question-and-answer period, during which most of the written questions submitted seemed to be for Fr. Gregory to answer. This was the best-attended ESBVM meeting I have seen, with a lot of Pittsburgh locals, including a number of college students, and a group that came all the way from Wisconsin, in addition the the regulars.
After the meeting, I spent the rest of the day with Mother Judith and Virginia Kimball, an Orthodox theologian. After coffee, we went to Vespers at St. George Cathedral, Oakland, a cathedral of the Antiochian Diocese of Charleston, Oakland, and the Mid-Atlantic (my own diocese). Oakland is a neighborhood of Pittsburgh, and St. George Cathedral is only a mile from St. Nicholas, the Greek cathedral where the ESBVM met. The iconography at St. George's is extensive and beautiful. The side walls feature icons of saints in roundels, surrounded and connected by vines. The lead chanter was one of the students we had met earlier in the day at the ESBVM meeting, a student of engineering at the nearby University of Pittsburgh and a friend of Fr. Gregory. We concluded the day with dinner at the Holiday Inn where the ESBVM's International Congress will be held next year.