A Pilgrimage Unmasked

St. Matthew Orthodox Church in Torrance, California is an Antiochian parish that follows the Byzantine Rite. Now, the music of the Byzantine Rite is an acquired taste for those of us who have a Western ear. That’s just about everybody, except for the few who may have grown up in the Byzantine Rite. Those of you who know what a blackboard is will remember the sound of fingernails scratching across a blackboard. Your reflex reaction is to shout, “Oh, stop it!” That’s what you want to say when the Byzantine Rite is done badly. But, when it’s done well, my oh my, it’s heavenly! At St. Matthew, they do it rite…I mean right. I was one of the happy congregants who was treated to the chanting of a young lady who had spent her earliest years in Damascus, Syria. She led the chanters one morning and presented a solo communion hymn that gave me chicken skin. (That’s “goose bumps” for you non-Hawaiians.)

St. Matthew Orthodox Church, Torrance, California

What a glorious “gift of music” that was and what a friendly bunch of people the people were at St. Matthew! For the record, there were no restrictions of a Covid nature at this parish. As a matter of fact, there were more women wearing scarves than there were people wearing masks. Many more.

The drive north through appropriately-named Bakersfield, where it’s as hot as an oven, was long and dry. Thank goodness for air-conditioned vehicles. After a night in Fresno, I drove up to Dunlap in the eastern foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Even at that higher elevation, it was pretty darned warm. None of the sisters was masked at Holy Theotokos the Life-giving Spring, but all of them were gracious. I counted fifteen young women, most of them Americans, as far as I could tell. They sang the vespers service like angels – literally. Too bad all of their singing, and that of the Korean priest, was done in inscrutable Greek. The monastery is one of the 19 that was built by Fr. Ephraim of Arizona. Opulent is the word I would use to describe it. You can see for yourself. The men’s monastery in Florence, Arizona is just as opulent.

The Monastery of the Holy Theotokos, the Life-giving Spring

Next on my ever-evolving itinerary was the ROCOR Cathedral of the Holy Virgin the Joy of All who Sorrow in San Francisco. This is where the relics of St. John of Shanghai and San Francisco are laid in a glass bier for all to venerate. I read the account of the saint’s heroic pastoral care for the White Russian refugees in Shanghai during the Japanese assault on the great city and later during the approaching threat of Mao Tse Tung’s (Mao Zedong’s) communist revolutionaries. St. John was able to negotiate the evacuation of his large flock, not all Christians, to the typhoon- swept Philippine isle of Tubabao, and later to Australia and the United States. Some of his spiritual descendants are still connected to the cathedral were his relics lie.

Cathedral Shrine of St. John Maximovitch of Shanghai and San Francisco

Next, a dear Christian lady welcomed me to Santa Rosa, further up the coast, to worship at her parish. The OCA Church of St. Seraphim of Sarov is the quintessential Orthodox temple, a domed structure in cruciform. The masterful frescoes painted by the rector’s matushka invite the worshipper to revel in the communion of the saints in heaven. Here for vespers and next day for the liturgy, this visit was a real treat. The choir is strong, the bells are glorious, and the preaching is robust. Who could ask for more? Out of caution here everyone wore a mask, except when he or she had a spoken part in the services.

St. Seraphim of Sarov Orthodox Church, Santa Rosa, California

The northern regions of California and the southern part of Oregon were smoky and hot, but the air cleared as I pushed onward. It was a delight to drive through the evergreen forests of Washington with tall trees that stretched upward toward a clear sky. The top point of my pilgrimage was the Holy Monastery of Christ, Our All Merciful God and Saviour – quite a mouthful. It’s on Vashon Island in Puget Sound (or the Salish Sea) in Washington State. Say “Washington” to an Easterner like me and I immediately think of our nation’s capital, D.C., so it’s less confusing to add the “State” bit. With our modern Global Positioning System, it’s easy to find the ferry port at Point Defiance in Tacoma for the short hop across the bay to Vashon Island.

This is where Abbot Tryphon and Fr. Paul procured several acres of land back in the late 1980s to build a monastery. Unlike the Greeks, the ROCOR Russians have to work on a tight budget, so the small buildings are modest but tastefully done. I spent three night here, waking up for prayer at six in the morning. At the beginning of September, the days were warm and the nights were chilly. The leaves on some of the saplings were already turning red and yellow, a signal that autumn was in the air. The five monks were very down-to-earth, so I felt right at home at the monastery. Nobody wore a mask at any time. Abbot Tryphon is a tall man with white hair and a deep voice, but a wry sense of humor. He had an immediate answer to the burning question that had sparked my pilgrimage. I am weighing his response with the opinions of the other people that I spoke with along the way. I am also doing my own mental “compare and contrast” with the Orthodox parish of which I am a steward and officer. All this to seek a normative way of Orthodox life within a Church that is fraught with challenges from the pandemic and the modernist mentality that has come to light during this crisis.

Holy Monastery of Christ, the All-Merciful Savior, Vashon Island, Washington

On my way back to Los Angeles, I spent a couple of nights in Portland, Oregon. Again, this Easterner still thinks of Portland, Maine when he hears the name “Portland”. I don’t know about Seattle, but there is no sign of the riots that happened last summer near the center of Portland. Two of the parishioners at St. Nicholas OCA parish said they live downtown, so they had a ringside seat for the youthful festivities in 2020, care of Black Lives Matter and Antifa. What fun it must have been for that elderly couple! (I’m being facetious). I was there at St. Nicholas for Saturday Vespers and Sunday’s Liturgy. Everyone wore masks at St. Nicholas, but some removed theirs for their spoken and sung parts of the services. The choir was strong and the acoustics of the squared-off wooden building complemented the singing.

St. Nicholas Orthodox Church in Portland, Oregon, with permanent baptismal font in narthex.

Now I’m back in Hawai’i. Poor me! There are two canonical Orthodox parishes on O’ahu: one in Honolulu and the other on the flip side of the Ko’olau Range in the town of Kailua. The ROCOR parish in Kailua is the one blessed with the myrrh-streaming icon of the Theotokos of Iveron, and it is from it/her that the parish bears its name. They bought a Protestant church building there recently and have done an incredible job of making it into an Orthodox temple. Some wear masks out of caution or courtesy, but most don’t and no one seems to object.

The myrrh-streaming icon at the eponymous Holy Theotokos of Iveron parish in Kailua, Hawai’i

It is at my own GOARCH parish of Saints Constantine and Helen where the public health restrictions seem to be the tightest. There are so many hoops that one needs to jump through simply to worship there that it must be discouraging to visitors who come such a long way on vacation. We’re still registering people online beforehand, but walk-ins are welcome. Temperatures are taken, questions about Covid exposure are asked, plexiglass shields are up and social distancing is practiced. Of course, everyone wears a mask at all times. Attendance is down out of an inordinate fear of the Delta variant, a fear reinforced by our governor and mayor’s hyper-cautiousness. In order to get to Hawai’i by plane, you have to show proof of vaccination or a negative test result. The same goes for eating in a restaurant once your on the island. Now is not a good time to visit Hawai’i and worship at my parish. Sadly.

Saints Constantine & Helen Greek Orthodox Cathedral of the Pacific, Honolulu, Hawai’i

Author: Lawrence B. Wheeler

B.A., M.Div. Former Anglican priest, convert to Orthodoxy.

4 thoughts on “A Pilgrimage Unmasked”

  1. Thanks, Melody. It was quite a trip.

    As God is the Author of all that is beautiful to the senses, Orthodox churches are built to express that beauty. The architecture and the icons, the music and bells, and the fragrances of incense and flowers are all meant to create a temple that makes one think of heaven.

    Tune into the live-streaming at Ancient Faith Radio to listen to Orthodox music online. You’ll find music of both the Byzantine Rite and the Russian Rite there, along with occasional contemporary compositions. It’s all a cappella singing.


  2. Regarding the Santa Rosa segment of “A Pilgrimage Unmasked”, the frescoes in the local church were not painted by the Rector’s wife. She is a most gifted ikonographer, but the frescoes were painted by Archimandrite Patrick (Doolan).


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