Saturday, July 12, 2014

Hidden Blessings

The other day, as I was leaving Philadelphia after the Clergy-Laity Congress, we decided to stop by the Russian Orthodox Cathedral for a visit. I had heard that it was built by the Czar, and I felt compelled, really, to go. I imagined it must have been an amazing Church if the Czar had invested in its construction. I imagined gilded icons, shining onion domes of various colors and the stench of ancient Orthodoxy in the heart of a modern city. I was NOT disappointed...

When we arrived at the Church, I almost missed it, tucked in between two buildings in what has recently become a “trendy” neighborhood after many years of crime and poverty. I stood across the street to take the first of what I imagined would be hundreds of pictures. When we entered, we were met by Fr Mark, the pastor for St Andrew Russian Orthodox Cathedral. He welcomed us into the most amazing Church I had visited in recent years.

As we walked up the stairs, I asked Fr Mark, “So this was built by the Czar?” “No,” he replied. “The Russian Navy built the Church.” With a lump of disappointed in my throat, and a bit of embarrassment, we ascended the stairs into the Church. The wooden floors creaked as we venerated the Icons of the Mother of God. The icons on the walls were covered in more than a hundred years of smoke and incense. I entered the Holy of Holies to venerate the Holy Altar. Every inch of the Church was filled with the fragrance of incense. I was in one of the simplest and most humble Churches considering its history and location in downtown Philadelphia.

I exited the Holy of Holies to begin venerating the Holy Icons, when it hit me. This WAS the glorious Church I had expected, but not for all the (lack of) gilded icons. As I went from icon to icon for veneration, I began to notice that each one, EACH ONE, had a relic of the Saint. I was blessed to venerate relics of:
  • St. Andrew the Apostle
  • Saints Peter and Paul
  • The Three Great Hierarchs (Basil, John Chrysostom, and Gregory the Theologian)
  • Saint George
  • Saint Elizabeth the Grand Duchess
  • Saint Luke the Physician
  • Saint Tikhon who had consecrated the Church in 1902
  • And at least a dozen more Russian Saints, the names of which I couldn’t read, including the first pastor of the Church who had been martyred by the Communists when he returned to Russia.

As we were preparing to leave the Church, I commented to Presvytera, “Much better than some ‘cracked bell’ isn’t it?” We were in Philadelphia just a few blocks away from the Liberty Bell. It may seem strange, but I have always been the kind of person who chose to visit local “hangouts” rather than famous tourist locations. I’ve been to New York several times, but never to the Empire State Building. I went to Athens and DIDN’T  go the Acropolis. It isn’t that I am against those places. I just prefer, when possible, to visit ‘normal’ places that help me appreciate people who live where I am visiting. But don’t worry, I have been to the US Capitol, The Prada Art Museum, Sidney Opera House, Ellis Island, and many other famous locations.

This has been a long-time tradition of mine which began in 1987 when I was in Australia with my high school choir. While visiting Melbourne, I heard of a nearby Greek Orthodox Church of Saint Catherine, the same name as my home Church at the time. I stopped by for a visit and have been hooked ever since. Visiting local churches during vacations has given me two blessings; experiencing the local people, and the grace of God present in their Church. I highly recommend fitting a visit to the local Orthodox Church into your next (and every future) vacation plans. You won’t be disappointed. I haven’t been.

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