Old Rite in the New World
Novice Angelos Stanway (HTOS, 2nd year).
The trip to the Russian Orthodox Old Rite parish of the Nativity of Christ in Erie, PA, was, for me, a much-anticipated part of my Russian Church History course, not only because of my personal interest in the various rites and liturgies that can be found in the Church, but also because this was an opportunity to pray and meet with a community whose roots and traditions go back, without exaggeration, to the Old Russia we read about in the lives of saints such as Saint Sergius of Radonezh, and the strugglers of the Northern Thebaid. The opportunity to see how such a community operated in modern America would be interesting, enlightening and, ultimately, quite surprising.
Our visit consisted of church services, a meal and meeting with the rector, Archpriest Pimen Simon, and Sunday school following the liturgy on Sunday. The divine services were an absolute marvel, with the hymns being delivered in beautiful and haunting Znamenny chant. Particularly edifying was the reading of the Gospel commentary during vigil on Saturday evening. I had the honour of joining them on kliros for a short time, as well as serving in the altar on Sunday, which allowed me to immerse myself in the experience. Although there are quite a few differences in the way we both serve, they are not major enough to confuse anyone attending for the first time and, contrary to popular misconception about Old-Rite Orthodox Christians, the community is very relaxed towards those who are unfamiliar with the Old Rite.
The Erie community itself is impressive and moving. There is a genuine feeling of familial warmth and Christian love there, evident in their community outreach, which includes a soup kitchen and homeless shelters in their impressive parish hall, where we were comfortably accommodated. Father Pimen graciously hosted us for a simple lenten supper after the vigil, and we listened intently to all of his anecdotes and tales of the Old Rite and his inspiring journey from the Bespopovtsy (priestless Old Believers) to ROCOR. The community provided a hearty lunch following liturgy and both childrens’ and adults’ Sunday schools (another impressive aspect of the community) joined together for a discussion with us. Our group was given the opportunity to answer questions about seminary life, our own personal experiences in the Church, and impressions of the Old Rite, and Father Pimen encouraged our professors to talk about the development of the Church’s liturgical traditions. This was followed immediately by festal Vespers for the feast of St John the Baptist and Father Pimen’s warm blessing for our journey home.
The visit was not only profitable from the perspective of a student of Russian Church History, but being able to pray, worship and receive the Holy Mysteries along with this warm and loving community proved to be a spiritually rewarding experience that will leave its impression on my heart for many years.
On the way home, the students and faculty visited Niagara Falls.