Lift High the Cross

By Marshall, Dan | The World and I, October 1998 | Go to article overview
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Lift High the Cross


Marshall, Dan, The World and I


Every September, in a sacred space in upstate New York, a man lifts a wooden cross above his head. It is a simple act, unremarkable when viewed out of context. Yet for the hundreds of Russian Orthodox clergy, monastics, and laity gathered in the cathedral of Holy Trinity Monastery, near Jordanville, New York, it is a grand gesture, full of spiritual power, theological significance, and historical resonance.

Beneath ten gold onion domes topped with crosses, inside walls abundantly frescoed with icons of saints, a rolling chorus of "Lord, have mercy" is sung five hundred times in Old Church Slavonic (the Russian Orthodox liturgical language). Robed in splendid vestments, priests, deacons, and altar boys are gathered around a solid black semicircle of more than fifty Russian-and American-born monks and seminarians. All center on Abbot Laurus--an archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia--who celebrates the zenith of a service formally known as the Exaltation of the Precious and Life-giving Cross of the Lord.

One of the twelve holiest events in the Orthodox liturgical calendar, the Exaltation of the Cross was established more than fifteen hundred years ago and is celebrated on September 27 according to the Gregorian calendar (September 14 by the Orthodox Church's Julian calendar). It commemorates Empress Helen's finding--in A.D. 326--of what was declared to be the cross on which Jesus Christ was crucified. Helen was the mother of Constantine, the first Roman emperor to actively support Christianity after almost three centuries of severe persecution and official neglect.

The Exaltation of the Cross and many other Orthodox traditions throve in Byzantium, spread to Russia, and were finally brought to America, where places such as Holy Trinity Monastery sustain them. When Archbishop Laurus raises the foot-tall cross wreathed with dozens of red carnations, white chrysanthemums, and yellow marigolds, he proclaims not only the salvific crucifixion of Jesus Christ but the eternal victory of Christ's church over its enemies, be they pagan emperors or communist dictators.

A spiritual hospital

Tucked amid fields, forests, and rolling hills, Holy Trinity Monastery stands on U.S. soil but occupies a psychological space far from rural America. The pleasant aroma of incense in church and presence of bearded monks wearing mantias (full-length capes) indicate the Eastern spiritual mind-set. Cyrillic letters on signs and the borscht served at lunch hint at the monastery's Russian roots. "This is a little glimpse of a thousand years of Russian Orthodox monastic tradition," says Father George, gesturing to the yellow brick and dark green roofs of the cathedral, seminary building, and monastic dormitory.

A convert to Orthodoxy, he came to the monastery in 1975. "Monastic life is not peace and quiet like people think," he warns. "It is leaving the temptations of the world to come face-to-face with your own shortcomings."

Monks wear black, don't cut their hair, drop their family names, and are given a new first name when tonsured to emphasize their separation from this world. "In the Roman Catholic Church, the Garden of Eden was a supernatural state; this life is considered a natural state," explains the father, who is both a priest and a monk. "In Orthodoxy, this is a fallen life; the natural state was Adam in paradise. The point of monasticism is to return to that state."

As the Orthodox understand it, the path back to paradise was first charted by the Mother of God, Saint John the Baptist, and the Apostles Paul, John, and James, who took vows of virginity and devoted themselves to continual prayer, fasting, and work. Other early Christians followed their examples without setting themselves apart from society.

When Emperor Constantine brought Orthodoxy from the margins of Roman society to its center in the third century, some Christians became concerned that this change might dilute the faith.

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