It has been nearly two weeks since I have received a wonderful gift, the blessing to serve the Church as a subdeacon. In some ways, nothing has changed. After all, our practical reality is that people who are not tonsured or ordained to minor orders very often serve in the capacity of epistle readers or altar servers.
But there is something to be said about that moment of bowing one’s head, having one’s hair cut, being prayed over by one’s bishop. That sense of being ordered towards something is an image that should be true of all of our lives whether this rite of ordination literally happens to us or not; it is an image that what we do in this life is what we are supposed to be doing. So often we feel like we may be going in the wrong direction, or perhaps in no direction at all due to wandering aimlessly.
The imagery above is not my focus du jour, however. Perhaps those thoughts on tonsuring and ordination per se are worthy of another blog post. It goes back to the title of this blog post, and that is the trouble that I have with my orarion. First off, I don’t want to presume that we’re all on the same page and we all know this word. In the Christian West, clergy wear this vestment, though it is more commonly known as a stole. In the Christian East, that word is fine as well but we more often read that a subdeacon or deacon wears an orarion while a priest wears an epitrachelion. They are both essentially stoles, but differ in terms of how they are worn and how they are used. Epitrachelion literally means that which goes on top of (“epi”, think of epidermis as the top layer of skin) one’s neck (“trache”, think of trachea).
This garment is worn around the neck extending downwards towards the front of a priest’s body. It is not held up during the Divine Liturgy, but it is extended in moments such as when a priest places it on the head of the penitent who has come to receive the holy mystery of forgiveness (aka penance, confession). In the prayers of vesting which are normally said privately by the priest while he vests, we hear this prayer: “Blessed be God who pours out his grace upon his priests, like precious oil upon the head, running down upon the beard, running down upon Aaron’s beard to the hem of his garment.” There is beautiful imagery of grace and blessing that pours down and in that sense the way that a priest wears the epitrachelion is an image of God’s goodness coming to earth, to us, to meet us and bring us to Himself.
The orarion of a subdeacon or deacon is not worn in the same manner. It is the same basic architecture of a stole, though it is not connected between the halves as is seen in an epitrachelion. To its etymological significance there is more debate, it may either be linked to a handkerchief that was waved to show one’s approval of something or it may be linked to the Latin word for prayer. See this link for more discussion on these two vestments as well as the Bishop’s omophorion.
Regardless of the exact origin of the word orarion, when worn by a deacon when he is leading the congregation in prayer, the orarion is held up as he intones a litany. In shorthand, whenever a Byzantine liturgy has the congregation praying Lord have mercy, a deacon will be intoning something just before and this orarion is raised. It is a call to focus our hearts upon his words and also to focus our hearts so that our response given may be genuine.
However, when a deacon is going to help prepare the holy gifts of the divine Eucharist to be received, or when he is preparing to consume the gifts which remain after the divine Eucharist has been received, the deacon changes the orientation of the orarion to the subdeacon’s. Here you can see a subdeacon vested, where the orarion is now in the form of a cross.
Personally, this reminds me of the words of the Gospels, where we read in John 13:3-5 that Jesus removed his outer garments and girded himself with a towel to be able to wash his disciples’ feet. The word deacon means servant in the original Greek, and if we remember what was just said, deacons wear the orarion in this cross manner while serving to give or receive the Eucharist. This scriptural link may or may not be something quoted by various Fathers or Mothers of the Church, but regardless it is true that this is what occurs functionally. It would be too unwieldy for a deacon to prepare and give communion, or to consume the gifts after others have received with his orarion in the position that is helpful to call others to prayer. It is also helpful for the subdeacon to serve at the altar or to do things like wash his bishop’s hands with the orarion in the form of a cross. Thus the link between service and this cross form should be something we all see.
Now, returning once again to this blog post’s title, we can finally all be on the same page and ask, “What’s the trouble with your orarion?”
Here’s my answer.
First, it impresses deeply upon me the call and need for service in the Church, and the entire world. It images directly that I need to lay down my own life and serve you and everyone who comes in my path. That has been an image that I knew was coming, but to have it there before my eyes has been a profound meditation. It is a strong call, which of course is what the word vocation means.
Second, from a very pragmatic angle, I have observed in wearing it now for 4 Divine Liturgies at this point (plus one Vespers-I know, I’m basically a pro 🙂 ) that this orarion can cause a lot of basic physical trouble. You can cinch it into a perfect X, where the 7 crosses along the vestment are nicely parallel where they are paired with each other. Take a few steps, however, and the symmetry can be lost. The evenness of the middle cross can sway to the left or right. At first I thought about being a bit OCD about it (who, me?).
But then this trouble of my orarion became an even deeper reflection, in a sense. Just as I have argued that the theology of the body from St. John Paul II can extend into the brokenness of the body, I looked at this trouble and realized that this is part of reality. We never cease striving for perfection, but we will fall short. My desire to serve should not be quenched by my shortcomings. Rather, each day can be a step towards having fewer troubles with my orarion, and each day can be a step towards serving with fewer troubles. To what extent am I not symmetrical with my love for my neighbors? To what extent am I crooked with my passion to help this particular person? How am I straightening out my relationships, just as I straighten out this orarion?
My trouble with the orarion has been a beautiful image of the ongoing journey to perfection, and I know that though it has only just begun, it is a journey that I will take with God’s grace, and through the prayers of my brethren.
Glory to Jesus Christ!