The Six Psalms being read at St. Tikhon’s Monastery. Courtesy photo
BY FATHER THEOPHAN MACKEY
St. Job of Pochaiv Orthodox Church
Someone once asked me, “Did you wear all black before you became a priest?”
Yes. Yes, I did.
I grew up in the late eighties and early nineties. Some who know me better, might say that I never grew up at all. Elementary school, for me, took place in a suburb of Birmingham, Alabama in a small, private, Christian school (evangelical). My father was the headmaster; my mother, the librarian; and my grandmother was the lunch lady. My two brothers and I couldn’t get away with anything.
When I was ten, we moved to a similar suburb in upstate New York as my father took a position at another church there. We were enrolled in a local public school for the first time in our lives. We were warned, mostly by friends who had no experience, that public school would be different, worse, even wicked. They were mostly wrong. Other than a little more colorful language, the kids and teachers were just as good and bad as the ones we left.
But my older brother took the warnings to heart and became militantly anticultural. He was one of the kids that we would really worry about nowadays. My younger brother took to the new school and more schoolmates like a fish to water. Charming, confident, and extroverted, he thrived.
I fell somewhere in between. Hard to believe, but I used to be painfully shy and introverted. I was labeled a “nerd” and yet did not have the ambition or the aptitude to be at the top of my class. I found my little group of friends and got basically good grades. But I was a little dark cloud passing through the school.
I missed the “goth” movement by ten years. Although it had started in cities like New York and Los Angeles years before, it had not filtered down into the mainstream which is the middle-American suburbs. Thus, I wore no white make-up, no black eyeliner or nail polish, but given the chance, I probably would have.
The “goth” sub-culture resonates with me, it always has. A thoughtful person who reflects on the fleeting nature of life, on injustice and pain, or on the human condition of individuality while longing for connection, will often settle on darker things. Goth music, gothic literature, goth fashion, all reflect on the darkness. Behind all of it, if it is real and not just spitting in the eye of one’s parents, is a profound response to our own mortality.
Death is the most powerful thing on earth. It is the thing we both most fear and the one thing that is inevitable, taxes aside. Should we not revere this most awesome thing? It makes sense. Little in this world consistently does.
Unrestrained consumerism, self-indulgence, and radical individualism are unhealthy and ultimately empty of meaning. Feed a desire and it will inevitably become stronger. And yet this is what is taught to us through all of our media streams.
I still don’t wear black eyeliner or nail polish. I do wear the black cassock (robe) in public representing my baptismal garment, it also speaks of a separation from the surrounding culture. I am not to care about the latest fashion or the most flattering clothes.
People of the mainstream, “the man” so to speak, are often uncomfortable with these kinds of judgements. “It’s not healthy to dwell on these dark things.” “I worry about this (or that) generation of kids.”
I worry that they will not go far enough.
The Orthodox faith acknowledges this majesty of death. In the stichera (verses) of Vespers, in the second tone, we sing that Christ “mortified the majesty of death.” He moved through the most powerful thing we ever experience and came out on the other side, glorified and resurrected.
There is something or, more to the point, someone who is more powerful than death. Someone who has trampled down death and bestowed life upon the world.
The traditional orange and black of Halloween come from the church as much as its name does. The black of clerical dress and the orange of beeswax candles are fitting for the feast of All Saints Day, and its eve.
Every Orthodox service is a candle-light service. Our church is dark for Holy Week, Passion Week. It gets very dark on Holy Friday and Saturday. All the lamps are out, all the candles extinguished. But that is not where we live. We live on the third day with Christ’s Resurrection.