I do know we began visiting in May. And I recall it was during Pascha. On our first visit, Khouria told us the Holy Doors were open because they remain open during Pascha. I didn't know what that meant at the time. Looking back, it strikes me how cute it is that she thought I would.
We've been immeasurably blessed by our time here, and as I've said before, we are most definitely home. There is no doubt at all this is where we belong. I've also said before that the most striking thing about our conversion is the impact it has had on our children. All of them, from our oldest who is 7 to our youngest who is 3, have grown immensely since that fateful day last Spring. They love the Church, they practice her piety, and they radiate the love of Christ that is embodied there. Oh, they're still the same kids. Lauren is still the sweet, smart one who wants to please everyone. Abby is still the shy, quiet one who has a mischievous bent. And Emily is still the wild free spirit who loves to talk at the wrong times, but thankfully has stopped yelling "can we go get bread?" before communion every Sunday. But they are quite obviously becoming Christians, living out their baptisms in the Sacramental life of the Church and growing in Christ day by day. If for no other reason, we are where we belong because of what it has done for their spiritual growth.
Memories are obviously still fresh. The first time we attended, we had been researching local parishes that we were "targeting" to visit. St. Stephens was close by, so we decided to drop in for Vespers on Saturday evening. It's a small parish, so when we arrived, no one was there except one man who was working in the yard with a garden hoe. He was wearing blue coveralls and could have easily been a landscaper hired by the parish. I introduced myself. He said "I'm Father Andrew." Our first contact with our soon-to-be priest was watching him lovingly care for the parish grounds by the sweat of his brow. Khouria Dannie came outside and took us into the Church to show us around. She introduced us to her daughter and granddaughters and Deacon Ray, and we took a seat at the back. The service began, and we were in awe of the sheer beauty of the piety and prayer life of the Orthodox Church, though a bit put off by the Arabic chant that is slightly more prominent in the Vespers service. They held nothing back on our account -- "most Holy Theotokos, save us" and "through the prayers of our holy fathers" rang in our Protestant ears. We had questions, we were given pamphlets and encouraged to come back.
We visited for a Divine Liturgy shortly thereafter, and the experience was somewhat different. We knew through reading about the Orthodox Church that the services "run together" -- if you don't know when the Divine Liturgy begins, you'll miss it because they aren't going to stop and tell you when it's coming. At the end of Matins, the priest intones "blessed is the Kingdom of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, both now and ever, and unto ages of ages!" That's the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. It was somewhat different than the Vespers service. At Vespers, the Church was nearly empty. At the Liturgy, it was packed. The Liturgy was quite a bit more familiar than Vespers. We knew the basic structure, and we knew most of the verbiage, and the tones used for the Liturgy itself were easier on our Western ears. But there were new things there as well. The Trisagion hymn and the Cherubic hymn were new to us. Hymns to the Theotokos and the saints were as well. And yet there was something familiar about both services that drew us to come back. Before communion the Church confessed:
I believe, O Lord, and I confess that thou art truly the Christ, the Son of the living God, who didst come into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief. And I believe that this is truly thine own immaculate Body, and that this is truly thine own precious Blood. Wherefore I pray thee, have mercy upon me and forgive my transgressions both voluntary and involuntary, of word and of deed, of knowledge and of ignorance; and make me worthy to partake without condemnation of thine immaculate Mysteries, unto remission of my sins and unto life everlasting. Amen. Of thy Mystical Supper, O Son of God, accept me today as a communicant; for I will not speak of thy Mystery to thine enemies, neither will I give thee a kiss as did Judas; but like the thief will I confess thee: Remember me, O Lord, in thy Kingdom. Not unto judgement nor unto condemnation be my partaking of thy Holy Mysteries, O Lord, but unto the healing of soul and body.
I looked at my wife with wide eyes and quietly said "wow!" It was one of the most penitential prayers I had ever heard. When the Church sang the now-familiar post-communion hymn:
We have seen the true light, we have received the heavenly Spirit, we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, Who has saved us.
.....we began to believe it. A year later, that belief has only grown stronger.
We have now observed essentially a full Church year -- a full cycle of Liturgies. A full cycle of readings. A full cycle of Feasts and fasts. When we first entered the door, we weren't sure if we would like it. Now, a year later, we can't imagine life without it.
That first night we heard, for the first time, the hymn we sing at every Vespers service. It seems appropriate here.
Preserve O God, the holy Orthodox Faith, and all Orthodox Christians unto ages of ages. Amen.