Latin Catholics often visit church to be alone with God; they have a feeling of emptiness in a Protestant church where the sacrament is not reserved. Not so the Byzantine Christians. On entering church they do not proceed to their private prayers without first going round to visit the icons, kissing them and lighting a candle before them, thus saluting the saints and joining in their communion.
That's my experience in church, too, although most of my "special" icons are alive and kicking. This past Sunday, I got to church early (not unusual for me because I enjoy what will happen next), and there were the greeters to greet and hug and share a joke with. (They had time for this, because the great last-minute Lutheran rush was some time off yet.) Then in to "my pew" (sorry, Kate: fourth pew, pulpit side), with a bow to the altar, sign of the cross, and a brief prayer. But across the aisle were Ro and Elaine, so it was out to hug and shake hands and share some excitement about the beautiful day -- and pets. (And then they scooted me up to adjust one of flower vases at the altar so that it was properly oriented. I'm not on altar guild, but I can handle turning a flower urn, I guess.) Then on to deliver an article I had saved for someone and to joke with another friend about the Cathars, for whom we both harbor some affection (if mostly as the source of humorous barbs). Back to the pew and hugs and kisses for the pewmates (among our closest friends) and the people behind us -- who usually sit farther back. And then "devotion" began in earnest -- or is that wrong?
My devotions don't begin when I cut out all the distractions of the people around me to be alone with God. (I have one friend who puts it almost exactly that way, and I can't begin to understand him.) I go to church to be with these very brothers and sisters, the Church. I can't imagine a liturgy without them. (At Mount Olive, we're a two-service church, except in summer. So some of these people I don't always see during the winter except at coffee hour. And so summer is special because I'm able to be with both "service" crowds.) To celebrate the liturgy, to receive the presence of the Lord, is for me entirely wrapped up the hopes and sadnesses of these folks. And not just them. There's the columbarium, where a few brothers share in our "mass" and await God's own good time to reunite them with us in bodily form. And then that great cloud of witnesses of which Paul speaks -- that's not just theoretical: Some of them are pictured in the windows; others we remember in prayers.
I felt that perhaps I wasn't being serious enough at church, even though we're a far-from-dour crowd. But now I get it: It's my Byzantine heart. With them, I take the "communion of saints" with utter seriousness. I'd like to see a more serious attempt to include the saints who have gone before in our prayer life at Mount Olive; it's better than it used to be. But for that to take hold, it seems to me, the kind of communing that occurs among the visible living forms the model for our including those whom we can't see.
And to think of worshiping without them is simply not something I can -- or want to -- get my mind around.