The hospitable invitation to the annual Otpust (pilgrimage) in Honor of Our Lady of Perpetual Help for the eighty-second year has been extended by the Byzantine Sisters of the Order of St. Basil the Great. The invitation calls us to gather on the beloved Mount, to sing the praises of our God and His most holy Mother, according to the customs and traditions that have nourished and inspired pilgrims since 1934.
Long before the age of e-mail and social media, an actual physical gathering of the faithful from distances far dispersed to spiritually renew and to socially recreate was considered indispensable to the health of the church. And, even though technology has made possible virtual reality and cyberspace connection of the diverse peoples of the world, we as human beings still need (perhaps now more than ever) the physical experience of God and of one another manifested at Otpust.
Many people have asked the meaning of the Slavic term Otpust used in reference to the pilgrimage. While this can be loosely translated today simply as “pilgrimage,” it holds a deeper and more precise meaning. An Otpust involves a moving from one place to another and back again, of a person or group of persons, for the express purpose of attaining some religious benefit or blessing. Otpust begins the moment pilgrims leave their homes, they “go out,” often traveling long distances to reach the designated sacred place. After spending a specific amount of time in prayer and attendance at liturgical services, the pilgrims then make the return trip, “going out” once again, retracing their steps until reaching their homes. It is this “going out” and “returning again” that captures the true meaning of our word Otpust, as it applies to the pilgrimages that are such a cherished tradition of our Eastern spiritual heritage.
Before leaving for Otpust, pilgrims traditionally request the blessing of their pastor, for safe and uneventful travels and for a spiritually enriching pilgrimage. Upon arriving at the Mount, pilgrims proceed to the top of the hill, to the shrine which contains the icon of Our Lady of Perpetual Help, so that they may venerate the sacred image and receive a blessing from one of the priests present specifically for this purpose. After the days of pilgrimage are concluded, the pilgrims proceed one last time to the shrine to obtain a blessing of “dismissal,” invoking the protection of God and the Blessed Virgin Mary for a safe and uneventful trip home and for an enriched spiritual life.
Each Otpust holds specific memories, levels of importance and meanings that are unique for every person. Each pilgrim brings one’s own particular life’s joys, predicaments, sorrows, hopes and expectations, yet several factors we pilgrims share in common: (1) to renew one’s spiritual life and relationship with God; (2) to ask the intercession of the Theotokos (Mother of God); and, (3) to afford ourselves a break from the ordinary busyness of our quotidian routines.
As our physical lives are a circle of “comings” and “goings,” of traveling from place to place throughout the various periods that mark the course of our earthly sojourn, so too our spiritual lives are a journey striving towards union (theosis) with God, ever growing in the acquisition of grace. The time of Otpust offers a special opportunity for us to reconnect with God and to step back and reflect on the ways in which we might accomplish this growth.
During Otpust, not only are our sins sacramentally forgiven (otpuskati: to remit or take away) in confession and our souls fed with the Bread of Life in holy communion, but we often receive insight and direction for the future – how to make our spiritual growth more complete, our hearts more filled with love for our neighbor and our minds more open to the activity of the Holy Spirit. It is in this spiritual cycle in which we continue to “go out” from the imperfect state of human weaknesses to a better and more Christ-like demeanor, that the pilgrimage is referred to as an Otpust.
*Отпусть (Otpust) in Cyrillic.