I’ve been trying to say something about my recent trip to an Orthodox church for vespers and liturgy. It’s proven really hard to get a bead on my experience. I’m not sure why that is, but I seem unable to put my finger on what made the whole deal so moving for me.
Here’s a little background. My friend, C-, who has recently been received into the Orthodox Church (OCA), where she joins her husband and children, invited me to worship with her in her new home. And because of my interest in almost all things East, I took her up on the offer. I was invited to sing with the choir – something which for this Lutheran boy who loves to sing made the whole deal much more complete and probably contributed to my sense of fulfillment.
The church building of Holy Trinity Orthodox Church is gorgeous. It’s a small building, seemingly converted to Eastern use from some Western tradition. It is the church that has recently installed an enormous icon of Our Lord across the ceiling – to which you’ll find links below. In addition to that, the iconostasis and great doors are very “porous” – i.e., not solid, so that one can see through them. And gazing across the altar and over the top of the iconostasis is another huge icon of the Theotokos. There are, in addition, numerous other icons on stands, on wall space, and in stained glass. Of course, there are no pews, except along the outside of the worship space, along the walls and a couple of portable short pews which can be set up for the infirm). Here's another link to some pictures of the worship space (posted by the iconographer).
As I have said ad nauseum, I’m used to a pretty high style of liturgical performance – lots of pomp and ceremony, sobriety, a hint of stiff-neckedness and almost pretension. I say that out of affection for that kind of atmosphere. But much of that was absent from Holy Trinity. Oh, the liturgy requires a certain amount of moving around, censing, intoning from various stations, processions. And here it was all carried out with an appropriate sense of sobriety and seriousness.
But one thing that struck me was that there seemed to be a naturalness to people and priest’s participation in the ceremonial. Everything was done with a sense that “this is important” but also that “this is natural, the way things go.” There were kids running around (no pews to corral them); people stood and then sat for a while and then stood again; many people sat on the floor (on lovely and soft Oriental carpets) for the sermon; people crossed themselves at different times, sometimes a simple cross, sometimes with a swoop to the floor (I have to find out about that). It’s not that things were sloppy; that would, I think, be anathema to Orthodox (noisy and busy perhaps, but not sloppy). So when it came time for communing, I felt sad (not irritated, the way I usually feel when I am not “included” in the communion) that I could not join with these people in sharing the Lord’s body and blood. But it also felt remarkably right to receive a blessing and to be allowed to kiss the base of the chalice during the communion – and then to share in the antidoron. (I’m still very Western oriented when it comes to so much of this: I really love the music – I this case, Russian, the kind of choral music I’ve been singing since I was 10. But communing with a spoon, the antidoron, the repetition – hmmm. It’s not in me, yet.)
I guess I came away with a fresh appreciation for how liturgy done unapologetically in the old style (whether it makes modern “sense” or not, whether it runs more than an hour or not) carries a deep and moving sense of propriety, of greatness. I was very aware that what was happening here was holy – i.e., bigger than any of its pieces and connected to the very source of life. Watching young people – children and teens and young adults – grooving on what was happening was impressive.
I told my friend that this was the first time I had felt welcome at an Orthodox service. Part of that was her working me into the choir so that I felt more involved (although Holy Trinity does have the liturgy bound into booklets so that people who don’t know it can follow). Part of it was the Senior Priest’s making an effort to greet me and welcome me. So that felt good.
I also felt more “touched” than I usually do at western masses, including those at my own congregation. Now part of that may be that familiarity breeds contempt, and when one knows something about the ideals of western liturgy, one finds more to criticize in others’ performance thereof. But part of it, too, was that I felt less “in charge” in the Orthodox liturgy: All the while I was singing, which was most of the service (it’s exhausting), I never felt that this is my time to say something to God or to sing my own little solo (even if others are singing along at the same time). I felt less intellectually engaged and more wholistically involved. And I know that that makes little sense.
Now, that’s not to say that I didn’t miss some things. I’m talking with C-, who’s a musician, now about differences East and West on the place of or the understanding of congregational song. At Holy Trinity, many of the people who did not constitute the choir sang right along with the choir, especially on some of the longer pieces. And I recognize that liturgical music is or should be considered congregational song. But I missed, though I now realize that I didn’t miss it as much as I thought I did, the congregation’s breaking into something more modern or Western or something – or a soloist singing something as lovely as a soloist sang at Mount Olive yesterday.
But I think the most global impression I took away from my extensive two services in the East was that I felt a part of something much bigger than what I normally experience in even a high mass in the Western Rite. The sense of awe and wonder and grace seemed easier for this congregation to live in and express than is true in my tradition. I only half-jokingly mention to my friend that one practice that symbolizes the difference between East and West for me was this: Following the dismissal at Holy Trinity, the people lined up to venerate the cross (kissing it, or crossing themselves, or whatever). In the West, we line up to venerate the pastor.
This was an eye and ear opener for me. I’ll have to go back. Maybe then I can both figure out and express what these reactions I have are.