The Little Stuff
The Little Stuff*
Converts to Orthodoxy usually get the big stuff: the overall theology, praxis, and tone of the faith. They understand the centrality of the Eucharist and the meaning of Baptism and Chrismation. They see how Protestantism reduces the faith and Catholicism has tended to add to it, and they understand why we reject both approaches. What converts often don’t get, according to my friend Fr Bazyl Zawierucha, is the little stuff that is the glue that binds Orthodox culture together.
Cradle Orthodox get the little stuff. Sometimes they miss the big stuff. They may be present in church, like other minimalist Christians, only on the big holidays of Nativity and Pascha and perhaps a national saint’s day, like St George in Greece. But they know how to ask for a blessing, how to say prayers with candles, and when to ask for blessings for houses and other possessions. They usually know the value of the monastic life in the overall scheme of Orthodoxy, even if converts don’t get it. They know about pilgrimage. Cradle Orthodox bear the fruit of hundreds of years growth of Orthodox culture.
Obviously we need each other. Cradle Orthodox can, perhaps, teach us converts the little stuff; and, perhaps, we can help them with the big picture. In the absence of cradle Orthodox, let us consult the resources that can help us.
The Book of Needs is a four-volume set of extra services that priests use alongside the prayer book. It contains all the services for baptism, chrismation, confession, anointing the sick, ordinations, marriage, the funeral, and the attendant services thereto. It contains prayers for the sick, for the suffering, and for travelers – all of which can be sought in church. It contains also many, many rites of blessing. It contains prayers for the special touches for different feast days during the year.
So, for example, the Book of Needs has prayers for herbs and flowers for the Feast of the Dormition; it has prayers for grapes and other fruit for Transfiguration. But it is up to us to remember “the little stuff,” i.e. to bring the fruits and the flowers.
The Book of Needs has the great blessing of water for Theophany and the house blessing that proceeds from Theophany into the congregation. It has the blessing for paschal baskets. It does not have the complete order or foods for the Holy Supper, held on the Eve of the Nativity, but that you can get from your priest.
The Book of Needs has the “little stuff” that surrounds death and dying. It contains the prayers we say at the bedside of those who are about to repose; it contains the litiya and panakhida that we say on various occasions after the death of a loved one. But it is up to us to remember to ask for “the little stuff,” to ask the priest, e.g., to serve a litiya on the 40th day after the death of a loved one, or to serve a panakhida on the anniversary of a loved one’s “heavenly birthday.”
The Book of Needs has the blessings but we have to remember that, when we take blessed flowers and herbs and fruit and palms, we have a responsibility to eat them reverently and/or dispose of the remnants reverently, which in Orthodoxy has always meant either by burning or by burying.
Lastly, about priestly blessings. Your priest is personally no big deal; but he represents a very big deal, so to speak. He represents Christ. We venerate the Christ who comes through him as we would venerate any other icon: by kissing – in this case – his right hand, because that hand points to the sacrament Christ brings among us. We ask his blessing because he bears the blessing of God the Holy Trinity, not because we seek his personal good wishes.
To ask a priestly blessing, you cross your hands, palms up, right hand on top of the left, and approach. You may or may not say “Father, bless.” The priest then makes the sign of the cross over your hands with the words “Blessed is our God always, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.” At the conclusion of the sign, he will lay his hand on your joined hands and you lift his hand as you bend to kiss it lightly. In some traditions, you also touch his hand to your forehead as a sign that you want God to bless and sanctify your intelligence as well.
Over the course of years, all this “little stuff” done externally becomes part of your soul and aids your lifelong internal conversion to Orthodoxy – and that goes for cradle as well as convert folks.
*In this article, “little stuff” is a metaphor for the small traditions that have grown up in some cultures, although certain traditions (litiyas, panakhidas) are universal across Orthodox Churches. In no way does this article push a particular ethnic slant on the faith. St Anthony of the Desert will continue to be a parish that embraces people of all backgrounds. Orthodoxy is still young in America and so we feel our way toward an American praxis that will incorporate us all.