Our Woman of the Week is Christy Ma, a liturgical scholar from Hong Kong who has studied at Holy Cross Seminary and Notre Dame. We asked her to tell you how liturgics took her on a journey from atheism to Christianity to Orthodoxy. You see her here speaking at a church-related event in Hong Kong, and with her professor, the renowned liturgical scholar, Fr. Robert Taft, S.J.:
"When I look back, there were several turning points that brought me here. It has been a long journey of metanoia, a journey of re-discovery of ekklesia, which is not an abstract concept or an institution, but a living divine-human reality vividly revealed through liturgy. I believe that Divine Providence has played an active role in my adventure.
"Turning point: Re-discovering my name through my childhood dream:
"Without knowing 'Christy' means 'the follower of Christ.' I have long used this name before I became Christian. Coming from an atheist family, I never thought of myself having anything to do with theology or even less liturgical studies.
"When I was about 5 or 6 years old, my mother asked me about a dream I'd had. 'Studying theology,' was my answer--even though I had no clue what that meant. We never thought about this conversation again, until two decades later when I planned to quit my job to study theology. By that time, I had become an evangelical Christian who was hoping to seek deeper understanding of the Christian faith. My father strongly opposed it. My mother attempted to talk me out of it. Unexpectedly, a flash of that particular childhood conversation came back to me. This remembrance miraculously changed my mother’s attitude, because she recalled what she promised over that childhood conversation.
"After the completion of my first theology degree, I worked at university to assist in teaching theology subjects. But the word, 'Liturgy' had not yet entered my vocabulary.
"Turning point: Realizing Christ through liturgical practices
"Under the shadow of the past rite controversy, the word 'liturgy' often carries a negative connotation for many evangelical Christians. In that context, liturgy is often been misconstrued as mere ritualism, a human artefact that is subject to church ministers’ preference. My turning point in understanding liturgy differently came when a pastoral team asked me to research ways of renewing their understanding of worship, to foster a sound and workable liturgical practice. 'What is worship?' is a primary question. I sensed that traditions with long-standing practices might shed light on it.
"In order to quest for the true spirit and forms of worship, I organized a full year of worship tours for myself in which I attended Jewish Shabbat services, Catholic masses, and/or Protestant /Reformed/Evangelical services every weekend. An Orthodox diocese had newly established its headquarters in Hong Kong and granted me the privilege to explore their worship as well. I was thus given an interesting crossroad between West and East. The first time I attended a Paschal liturgy in 2003, I was profoundly captured by the beauty of the Byzantine rite. The word 'Divine' on the title of the service book intensely intrigued me. Why did Eastern Christians perceive their liturgy as divine? Reflection on the Eastern approach led me to quest to understand 'Who is doing what in liturgy?' I began to read the works of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. The more I read, the more I realized that liturgy is not something I could comprehend by a merely intellectual approach.
"After this fateful encounter in liturgy, I practiced divine offices and began to perceive prayers differently. The form of prayers matters. Prayer is not merely about our human needs. It is the communion of the Saints, the seen and the unseen, the living and the reposed. Prayer, especially the Lord’s Prayer is a crossroad between heaven and earth. The Church is feeding Christ’s words to us through the form of its worship and prayers. The life of Christ is epitomized in the church form of prayers. Liturgical prayers of various cycles re-image Christ and actualize Christ in us.
"A desire to participate in Orthodox worship was growing within me, but I was tied up with responsibilities to my former church. It wasn't until two years later that the dynamic of the pastoral team changed. The pastor-in-charge reneged impetuously on a previous decision on worship renewal. I perceived this abrupt stop as an opportunity for me to experience a Lenten journey in an Orthodox Church.
"At first, I intended to immerse myself in the Orthodox church for only a couple of months. However, I was changed and could not go back to my previous form of worship. It was also around this time that opportunities to study came to light.
My husband saw my gifts and passion for liturgy, and raised the idea of studying liturgy abroad. But I did not research this idea, because I was not sure it could work out, as my daughter was still young. But I prayed and asked for God’s guidance.
"A few weeks later, I was amazed to receive a package of application form for the Notre Dame summer program in Liturgical Studies. A Catholic liturgist had originally prepared this package for a priest who ended up deciding to study elsewhere. She thought I might be a suitable candidate. I was delighted to discover that Fr. Robert F. Taft S.J. was actually on the professor list. I longed to meet him face to face. I instantly felt that Notre Dame was the place I should go. I was soon surprised to receive a monetary gift that was sufficient to cover the expense of my first study trip. The giver had no preconceived knowledge of our study plan. By this time, the divine providence seems to me obvious. I then determined to go for it because I knew Who brought me to campus again.
"One year later, another education opportunity began to emerge. One day, our parish priest passed me the course catalogue of Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (HCHC). I couldn't help whispering, 'It would be great if I could study in this school.' Surprisingly, this wish was granted. With the kind support of the inaugural Metropolitan of Hong Kong, His Eminence Nikitas, I received a full scholarship for the Master of Theology program. I was allowed to take as many courses as I could during an eight-month residency. I completely enjoyed my classes, particularly, the full range of liturgical services offered by the school chapel every day."
Christy Ma, our Woman of the Week, is a liturgical scholar who studied with some of the greats at Holy Cross and Notre Dame. We asked her how sees her calling to study such a subect:
"I have often been asked what is the purpose of studying liturgy, as it seems to some people like a domain not suited to Orthodox lay women. To me, it is my spiritual commitment to the One who grants me this gift and takes me that far. To teach or to share my understanding in liturgy is my service to those who are interested in it. I believe that a greater understanding in liturgy can lead some people to a deeper participation and because I believe this for me, I am committed to offering knowledge as a significant service to church growth, ecumenism, mission and inculturation.
"I was given an interesting crossroad between East and West. The methodology and the teaching of the professors I encountered in both schools enlarge my capacity to see the depth of Liturgical Studies. In the past decade, I am thankful for the opportunities to share my understanding in liturgies to non-Orthodox seminarians. Sometimes I received invitation to speak on subjects like liturgical inculturation, Byzantine Lectionary, subjects that require resourceful library support . I am forever grateful for my alma mater, the University of Notre Dame, which has granted me the library resources to meet the challenges. I owed my gratitude especially to Professor David W. Fagerberg, who himself is a great example to learn from. He has been willing to interact with his students in a conscientious manner. He speaks about difficult subjects in such a clarity that benefits my preparation to teach.
"Destiny is full of elements of surprises. I quit my job after I gave birth to my daughter and thought that obtaining a Master of Divinity would be my last degree. By the time my daughter reached school age, my husband and I decided to move out of our niche to look for a suitable school for her. We therefore took an adventure and moved to an unfamiliar region. We didn't know that this move would not only provide an education opportunity for our daughter, but for me as well. The only Catholic Seminary in the city happened to be situated near our new residence, so although I was an evangelical Christian, I now had the chance to explore fields like Mariology, Patristics, and Liturgy. I often spent my time reading in their library, where I "met" my guiding star to Liturgical Studies: Robert F. Taft, S.J. One day in 2005, my attention was caught by a particular author. What did a Jesuit have to do with Eastern rites? This first encounter left a deep impression on me. I had no idea that he would soon become my professor.
Another guiding star is my husband, who saw my gifts and passion for liturgy. He was the one who first raised the idea of studying liturgy abroad, because there was no possibility of doing so in Hong Kong."
"Being new in Orthodoxy at the time in seminary, I was very thankful for my thesis supervisor, Dr. Philip Zymaris. Out of his tight schedule and heavy responsibilities, he brought me to different services like funerals and different churches in order to enrich my exposure. I often noted down whatever caught my curiosity, whatever appeared to deviate from what was supposed to be. He often interacted with me and shared his understanding of what lay behind liturgical praxis or even bizarre customs. He sometimes drew me church facilities to help familiarize me. He knew Orthodox Christians were a rarity in Hong Kong and thus gave me abundant resources to bring home. Thanks to him, I was able to study hymnography under Dr. Alkiviadis Calivas, Professor Emeritus of Liturgics, who had retired by then. (Hymnography is invaluable because the doctrine of the faith is embedded in it.) It was also difficult for me who has not grown up from the Orthodox worship. Fr. Calivas patiently helped me through this difficult subject."
We asked Christy Ma, our Woman of the Week, about her morning routine:
"I treasure quiet moments in the morning, so I usually get up around 5. The first thing I do is recite the Trisagion. I then make myself a cup of tea to wake up my mind for reading scriptures, sermons, and the lives of the Saints. I then pray for myself, my family, my relatives, godchildren, friends, former professors, hierarchs and clerics, the sick, the reposed, and those who are suffering. I have done this routine for decades. The only thing that varies is the contents of my prayer lists. After doing all these, I have to get my first round of housework done by 7:30am, before my husband leaves for work. After breakfast, I do the dishes and laundry, water plants, and tidy up my home. I usually got a couple of hours before lunch for studying.
"On mornings when I cannot get up before dawn, I switch the order, and make breakfast and pack lunch for my husband before my devotional time. My mind usually goes into overdrive when I have already gone through a lot of activities. It is harder to quiet it down and it often struggles to get other things done then read scriptures. My morning routine has always comprised of pots and ‘pen’, as this reflects my roles of being daughter, mother, wife, scholar, teacher, writer. It is also a long journey of learning how 'to love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.'"
Thank you, Christy!