A little bit of context: Forgiveness Vespers is the first service of Lent in the Orthodox Church, where we ask forgiveness of everyone in the parish. It’s an absolutely beautiful service, and we actually sing the Pascha (Easter) hymns during it, which was a wonder surprise for me my second Forgiveness Vespers, when I could actually recognize them.
When my family began the journey to the Orthodox Church, I began to journal it, writing up in detail each new service we attend. It’s my hope to someday publish this, as when I went looking I couldn’t find a single book for Protestant teens coming to the Church. The project’s taken a somewhat back-burner spot at the moment (and I have no idea how I’m going to re-capture my 14 year old voice, it’s a lot more mature now). But one of the services I managed to write up was Forgiveness Vespers. Here it is, mainly preserved as my 14 year old self wrote it:
Forgiveness vespers was, I think, when I first started accept Orthodoxy as being true. Until that point I had just been following along. Yeah, I believed (and still do) everything Dad tells me, and I had been learning quite a lot about the faith, but I never, I think, realized it in my heart. Indeed, when we first started going to Holy Trinity, I wasn’t even a Christian! I didn’t really believe in God at the time. But anyway, by the time Lent rolled around, I was becoming comfortable in an Orthodox church. I sorta-kinda-maybe understood the doctrine, and I could go through most of the motions. There were quite a few things, though, that I wasn’t comfortable with. For example, confession. (And the first, second, and third findings of the head of the John the Baptist. Seriously, how many time can you lose a head? But that’s beside the point…)
Anyway, during the day, around lunch time, Dad called us and told us that we would be going to the service that night, and that, while he would like us all to participate, we didn’t have to. Now, before this, I had begun to read ‘Facing East’, Fredricka Mathews-Greene’s book, which happened to include an account of Forgiveness Vespers at her parish.
I most emphatically did not want to participate in that. Not that I was against the idea, it was just the awkwardness factor. I didn’t know how to make a prostration (certainly knew by the end of Lent!), I didn’t know practically anybody in the parish, despite going there for half a year, and, just, I wasn’t comfortable. I actually almost had a break down because it seemed like at first that Mom and Dad were trying to pressure me and Ian into doing it. (Ian with the broken foot at the time) Another reason – from Mrs. Mathews-Greene’s account, this was something that was very private and moving, and as I knew practically no one there, and hadn’t really offended anyone, I didn’t see the point.
We ended up going, obviously. It was my first service with prostrations. I take that back, my first service with prostrations was the Feast of the Elevation of the Cross, or something like that. I really don’t count it, as I had no idea what was going one. We had arrived late, and found the entirety of those in the nave waving their bottoms in the air. (Can you tell I was new to Orthodoxy at that time?) Anyway.
It was also my first Vespers service. I honestly don’t remember that much of it. I’m assuming that it had most of the normal parts of a Vespers service, but I’ll have to wait until next year to be sure. It was towards the end, though, when the Lenten prayer of St. Ephraim was said. I’m pretty sure that at that time I had no idea what was being said, not really. It was late, I was confused, I was nervous about the ‘Forgiveness’ part of Forgiveness Vespers, and honestly was paying more attention to learning how to prostrate than learning the words to a prayer. I now know it, it comes from saying it every day during Lent:
“O Lord and Master of my life, take from me the spirit of sloth, despair, lust of power, and idle talk.
But give rather the spirit of chastity, humility, patience, and love to Thy servant.
Yea, O Lord and King, grant me to see my own transgressions, and not to judge my brother, for blessed art Thou, unto ages of ages. Amen.”
Honestly, I think this may be one of my favorite prayers.
Bye the time that everyone was praying this, Mom and Dad had had to leave the nave. We had brought the twins, and they were really starting to act up. So it was just me, Ian and Nathaniel sitting in our seats. Nate was playing with something from the diaper bag, like most children in the service, and Ian was sitting down looking mildly interested, but, knowing Ian, probably board.
I was mainly standing there awkwardly as everyone around me went to their knees. As I glanced back to the door to see if Mom and Dad were any closer to coming back in, I noticed Father Chris standing against the wall and beckoning to me. After checking to make sure Nate was occupied, and letting Ian know where I was going, I went back to him. As we stood next to each other, he started whispering to me, explaining the prayer, what it meant, and what a prostration was, as well as demonstrating for me.
When the prayer was done, Father Tim pronounced the dismissal, and then we all sat down again. He began to explain what Forgiveness Vespers was, for those who might be visiting and didn’t know, and how it worked. After that he encouraged everyone to participate, even if they didn’t know anybody. He mentioned one lady who was there, who her first night at Holy Trinity had been this Vespers. I really can’t imagine how awkward that must have been. For me, at least, I knew by site everyone there.
After all the talking was finished, Father Tim went up to the front, and both he and Father Chris made a prostration to each other, hugged, kissed (on the cheek), and then Father Chris came and stood next to Father Tim. Father Mike was next, and he did it was Father Tim, then Father Chris, and the stood next to Father Chris. It would keep going like this, with the line ending up wound around and around the church building. I still don’t know how they managed to fit everyone inside like that.
For some odd reason, I began to have this ‘apprehensive but looking forward’ feeling building up inside me as I watched. I don’t entirely know why, but as more and more people went down the line, I started tearing up. It was weird, but they weren’t sad tears. They weren’t exactly happy either. I honestly don’t really get it.
Mom and Dad had come in by now, and they were standing in the back. That didn’t help matters much for me. It was one thing to cry, it was another entirely for my family to see me doing it.
I think what made me get up out of my chair and get in line was the fact that it didn’t seem awkward. Well, it did, but it didn’t. I’m not making much sense, am I? Anyway, I got in line, and right behind me were the Lockridges. Mr. Lockridge started talking to me about the Odyssey, and I almost forgot to go forward when it was my turn. At first it was embarrassing. I was probably the only one who thought so, of course, but all the same, my face was very hot, and I’m sure it was red. I wasn’t exactly about to pull out a mirror, obviously.
It was a bit odd, at first. I don’t know why exactly, but it was. First was Fr. Tim, then Fr. Chris, both of whom I knew pretty well, well, well enough, and then it was the day’s altar boys, mostly from my Church School class. Mainly people I was at least acquainted with. That was awkward, especially since they were mostly preteen or early teenaged boys. Those were particularly distant hugs.
But as I went down the line, it got to be much more comfortable, even fun, almost. Then, of course, there were the complete strangers, mainly old men and women, who would give me a giant hug and three kisses on the cheek. I was sort of used to this from older ladies, but from a completely strange man that I’d never seen before…
Anyway, I was about half way around the church when I noticed that some (or all) were rather sweaty. It didn’t really bother me, and I completely forgot about it. I ended up have mini-conversations with people, and after asking forgiveness, they would ask how long we had been there, or what my name was, or if I was the girl with the twin brothers. (Why is everything about Robert and David?).
At last, after going about once and half around the nave (still not sure how they worked that) I had reached the end of the standing-in-one-place line and was now sanding myself, as the still moving line went on, and started to stand still as well, next to be and on again. It was around this time that I noticed my back was starting to hurt a little bit.
This didn’t bother me that much, not really, and I continued on, occasionally chatting with Rebecka, who was standing next to me with her mother.
I was a little surprised when I found myself prostrating in front of Dad. I hadn’t realized that they had gone through. He was holding one of the twins, I think Robert, as he went. Next was Mom and David, and then Nathaniel, who informed me that he wasn’t really doing anything, he was just following Mom and Dad. Before she went on, Mom handed David off to me, letting out a sigh of relief as she did so. I think she was exhausted.
Now that I had the heavy toddler, I stopped making prostrations, and just did bows, or however pronounce them. Where you cross yourself and reach to the ground. Anyway, it wasn’t long before it was over, after that. Matushka Jennifer was the last to pass me, and as she did so she told me I could go sing with the other kids. I didn’t. I’m really bad at singing liturgical music, not to mention that the ‘choir’ was dispersing.
After that I don’t remember much at all. I’m assuming that we all went home instead of staying for a small coffee hour or something, as we had the twins and Nate with us, and that would have been after their bedtime.
I don’t think I could pinpoint an exact time that evening that I realized “Hey, this is right,” but at the end there was a quiet acceptance. This is right. This is the way things are supposed to be.