October 17, 2004
Perpetuum mobile

Today I followed up on the idea from this thread and visited the Orthodox mission near my apartment. (By the way, thanks to whoever it was who left the poem there.) It's called Joy of All Who Sorrow, and I'd gone past it a zillion times without realizing it was a mission, or even a church, because it only really advertises itself as a bookstore. It's hard to miss, though, because of the big painting of the Archangel Michael on horseback out front. (Why you need a horse if you've got wings I don't know, but it's a cool image.)

When I walked inside, for the first time in all of my church visits, I spent a long time wondering what the hell I should be doing. The front room, which was just about the size of someone's living room, was nearly devoid of furniture except for a stand like a lecturn in the middle, which held an icon on top and was draped in pretty blue fabric. There were, in fact icons all over the walls of the room, to the point where it was rather dizzying, but at least it covered the cheap '70s paneling. (Clearly, the building was not designed to be a church.) A woman and her child were sitting on a bench to the side. Over in the corner I saw a young man and a figure in elaborate gold cloth bent over a large book on a stand, apparently deep in prayer. Incense floated in the air, and along with it a woman's voice chanting in a rapid monotone, too fast to catch all the words but she seemed to be appealing to God for forgiveness and redemption. I had the feeling of walking into a machine that was already in operation, and I was loath to interrupt.

As it was, however, I couldn't even figure out where the services were supposed to be happening. People started to filter in, and most went through the middle room (the actual bookstore) and into the room behind it, and I wondered if the chapel was back there. But once the figure in gold finished the prayer with the other man, he disappeared into a compartment to the side of the room. It was odd -- it had doors like in a department-store dressing room, but like everything else it was elaborately decorated and painted with icons. I could see feet roaming around in it, doing something, I couldn't tell what.

Eventually a group gathered in the book room, facing an opening in the wall between the two rooms, and I wondered if I was supposed to be there, but other people were out where I was standing. Then the dressing-room compartment lit up, a curtain opened and I saw the altar inside it. The priest turned toward us and chanted, "In peace let us pray to the Lord," and the group in the book room sang back, "Lord have mercy."

I finally understood the layout. I'd heard that the traditional Tridentine Mass had the altar behind a screen, and what looked to me like a dressing-room paritition was that screen. The book room was functioning as a choir loft, and the congregation, in the ancient manner, stood watching it all without pews.

The Kyrie continued on familiarly, though it went on much longer than the Lutheran version, elaborating to pray for the clergy, the Metropolitan, the President and other civil authorities, the sick and suffering, Orthodox Christians everywhere, and a lot of other groups I've forgotten by now. The music was very pretty, which was a good thing because nearly the entire service consisted of it. When I first visited the Lutherans I'd admired the way the liturgy integrated music throughout, as opposed to doing it in chunks like most other Protestant services, but the Orthodox take that even farther. Everything was sung or chanted except for the homily and a collective pre-communion prayer (why that was spoken I don't know).

The constant music gave the service a hypnotic quality that I'd never quite experienced in any other church. I've been reading a lot of Oliver Sacks lately (more about that later) and can't help thinking of his observations about people with brain disorders, like Parkonsonism or Tourette's, that screw up their volitional actions but somehow disappear when they're singing, dancing, swimming, or doing some other rhythmic, half-conscious activity. There is a path to the non-rational, organic part of the mind that ritual achieves, and other liturgical churches I've been to have aimed for it but don't seem to have really had the heart to go all the way. The Orthodox definitely go all the way.

Still, something seemed off when the lector actually chanted the epistle reading. Paul's letters are so much like ordinary letters, with the somewhat tangential asides, the shout-outs to his friends, and the fretting over the little human melodramas in church, that somehow the words didn't seem to fit with the mythic ambience. When the priest sang the Gospel reading -- it was Luke's version of the story of the disreputable woman kissing Christ's feet -- his monotone chant got progressively higher as he went along, as if building to a climax. That worked a little better, perhaps partly since it was a narrative.

When I hear people talking about pre-Vatican II masses, one thing I often hear negatively mentioned is how the priest has his back to the congregation most of the time. That didn't bother me, actually, because I understood the concept that he was facing God as our representative. (Although watching his back in that elaborate gold garment, which was completely stiff from the shoulders up, I couldn't help thinking he looked like he was wearing a giant lampshade.) The screen frankly irritated me, though, because I didn't understand its purpose. I wanted to see what was going on, and I didn't get why this stuff had to be hidden. I guessed it was meant to imitate the Holy of Holies in the old Hebrew temple. But doesn't Luke say that when Christ was crucified, the curtain shielding it was torn?

Eventually we got to communion, which as usual I sat out. I was puzzled by what I could see of it. The priest had a cup with a spoon with which he would feed people (with his assistants holding a cloth under the communicant's chin, so nothing would hit the floor). But then each person went to drink out of another cup and eat the bread from a plate. I'd never seen a communion with so many parts.

Probably what I liked best about the service was its overall seriousness. It wasn't dark or depressing, but it carried the definite aura that something important was happening, which even the tininess of the congregation didn't detract from. It makes me wonder again why so many American churches are almost compulsively jokey. (This extends even to their names, sometimes -- in my neighborhood there's a Son-Rise Community Church and a Rejoyce Ministries.) It occurs to me that the mood may have come not only from the denomination but from the fact that it's a mission, and so a certain zeal of both the converting and the converted hung in the air.

After the service wound down -- it took an hour and a half in all -- I finally started talking to people. They were very friendly, and invited me to the back room where they were all having lunch. (I guess people kept going back to it before the service to drop off the food.) There was a mixture of ethnics and converts from other denominations; the guy I talked to longest had been raised Protestant. He gave me a pamphlet written by none other than Frederica Mathewes-Green, entitled, "Before Your First Visit to an Orthodox Church: 12 Things I Wish I Had Known." A lot of the points dealt with anticipated complaints from Protestants about aspects that I already understood to continue from the premodern tradition: the lack of pews, the fancy decor, the constant music, the length of the service, the habit of kissing everything, etc. Mathewes-Green summarizes: "Everything we see, hear, smell, touch, taste, or do in the Orthodox Church has one purpose and one purpose only: to lead us closer to God. Since God created us with physical bodies and senses, we believe He desires us to use our bodies and senses to grow closer to Him."

At one point, she addressed what had puzzled me about communion:

Only Orthodox may take communion, but anyone may have some of the blessed bread. Here's how it works: the round communion loaf, baked by a parishioner, is imprinted with the seal. In the preparation service before the Liturgy, the priest cuts out a section of the seal and sets it aside; it is called the "Lamb." The rest of the bread is cut up and placed in a large basket, and blessed by the priest.

... When we receive communion, we file up to the priest, standing and opening our mouths wide while he gives us a portion of the wine-soaked bread from a spoon. ... As we file past the priest, we come to an altar boy holding a basket of blessed bread. People take portions for themselves and for visitors and non-Orthodox friends around them. If someone hands you a piece of blessed bread, do not panic; it is not the eucharistic Body. It is a sign of fellowship.

Huh. I'd never heard of this two-tiered communion before. Amid the arguments in the western churches about open communion, it sounds like a potentially interesting compromise.

Anyway, this is what she says about the screen in front of the altar:

Every Orthodox church will have an iconostasis before its altar. "Iconostasis" means "icon-stand."

... The basic set-up of two large icons creates, if you use your imagination, three doors. [I didn't have to imagine it in this case -- there were three doors!] The central opening, in front of the altar itself, usually has two doors, called the "Royal Doors," because that is where the King of Glory comes out to the congregation in the Eucharist. Only the priest and deacons, who bear the Eucharist, use the Royal Doors.

The openings on the other sides of the two main icons, if there is a complete iconostasis, have doors, with icons of angels; they are termed the "Deacon's Doors." Altar boys and others with business behind the altar use these, although no one is to go through any of the doors without appropriate reason. Altar service -- priests, deacons, altar boys -- is restricted to males. Females are invited to participate in every other area of church life.

OK, well, I still don't see why it needs to be there. That third-century house-church service I described a while back didn't seem to have such a thing. Actually, I wonder if it has something to do with the reason an Episcopal priest told me that altar rails were introduced in Anglican churches. In the old days the peasants would show up in the village churches with their animals, and you didn't want one of them to wander over to the altar and start munching on the body of Christ or something.

At any rate, it was interesting to listen to the former Protestant guy explain the appeal of Orthodoxy, from his point of view. In his mind, the first Protestant was the medieval Pope who insisted upon his supremacy, thus causing the Eastern Schism. After that, western Christianity was on an inevitable downhill slide of individualism, as every person thought they could make whatever changes they wanted to make. But the Orthodox continued as they were, carrying on the unbroken chain from the earliest church.

In fact, that sense of a perpetual-motion machine that I'd felt upon first entering the church was truer than I'd realized. The mission has daily services, but it has some liturgy to recognize every hour of every day. "So all over the world," he explained, "at every moment, someone is praising God. That's as it should be." The lengthy service I'd attended was but a continuation of the Matins service, which itself continued the vigil started the evening before (like Jews, Orthodox start holy days at sundown).

It's interesting to see all this so soon after visiting the Mennonites, because both groups are, in a sense, trying to capture and preserve the spirit of the ancient church, and yet they are so radically different. The Eastern churches have long had a reputation for being more mystical than the Western, and that seems to explain the difference to some extent. The hypnotic liturgy and mysteriously hidden altar, appealing to that non-rational, non-volitional part of the mind, stand in stark contrast to the willful spirit of consciousness and social action that characterized the Mennonites. Yet even mysticism the west does differently; the Pentecostal movement of modern America could also hardly be more different from the ultra-formal liturgy of the Orthodox.

I guess the guy was right that individualism is a large part of it. Yet I couldn't help feeling, with the gold-painted everything and the all-male space closed off from the masses, that there's some truth to the charge that such churches absorbed the hierarchy and monarchism of the societies around them. When we all gathered around, some sitting on the floor of the small room, to hear the priest give his homily in a serious yet kind voice, I had the feeling of being in a house church, like the first Christians went to. And then the priest went back behind the iconostasis, drew the curtain and disappeared.

Posted by Camassia at October 17, 2004 02:51 PM | TrackBack

The method of Communion you described -- putting the Host on a (golden?) spoon and dipping it into the chalice -- is called Communion by intinction, and it tends to be the norm in most Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic churches. It has lately been proposed for Western Catholic churches to solve the debate over Communion on the tongue vs. in the hand. It would solve the irreverence problem proposed by those who favor on the tongue, but it would also eliminate the sanitary problem proposed by some of those who favor in the hand.

You also mentioned bread and a cup after Communion. I didn't have any idea what that was, so I did some digging. It turns out that the Orthodox also have a tradition of "blessed bread," which all may receive. Communion is only for the Orthodox, but the blessed bread can be received presumably by any Christian (although it may be any visitor, I don't know) as a sign of fellowship. However, I don't know anything about a second cup.

Frederica Mathewes-Green has a description of Orthodox worship here, if you're interested: http://www.frederica.com/orthodox/o12th-mrb.html I haven't read the entire thing, but it looks pretty thorough.

Posted by: Nathan on October 17, 2004 11:46 PM

I go to a Byzantine Catholic church most Sundays and so I found this report interesting. I brought a couple friends to the liturgy once and the first thing one of them said was, "it bothers me that they closed the doors [during the Creed] and that I couldn't see what happens then."

The priest they heard retired last year and a younger one took his place, and he immediately quit closing the doors. A few of the old stalwarts complained and tried to start a petition to complain to the bishop! But apparently it's an optional practice. Anyway, over time, you get quite used to hearing St. Paul in chant and it becomes unremarkable, but I can definitely relate to your initial impression.

Posted by: TSO on October 18, 2004 05:09 AM

The second cup is wine to help us make sure that we don't get the Eucharist stuck in our throats - sort of like the glass of water with taking a pill. There is no specific blessing given to it before it is served (just water added for the sake of children); it is not a Communion cup. The blessed bread is also to clear our throats and to break our fast, as we fast from midnight the night before until we take Communion the next day. It is not Communion. This is not a two-tiered system, but I can see why you might have thought that.

The iconostasis recalls the veil that divided the Temple in Jerusalem. Yes, the veil was torn as recorded by Luke, but that symbolism that is generally applied to that action (we now have nothing between God and us) is more western in thought. Most old Catholic churches that I've seen (that haven't been remodelled) maintain a similar screen.

The purpose of the iconostasis is not to keep animals out of the communion or the antidoron (the name of the blessed bread). Animals in general are forbidden to come into the church. The use of assistance or guide dogs in an Orthdox church is under a great deal of controversy because they are forbidden to come in.

In Orthodoxy, there is a tremendous sense of "holy place" that I never found in protestant churches. The belief that any place could be a place where God and man meet (Golgotha, or any of the places that God made an appearance in the Old Testament) and that no place is specificly holy is not accepted in Orthodoxy. I've heard of some missions that set up in borrowed space but still set up an iconostasis and then the place behind it is made holy by the presence of Christ during the prayers before Communion. One approaches at one's peril.

Can you link me to your "house church" post? I'm curious about a third-century house church.

As to the comment churches absorbed the hierarchy and monarchism of the societies around them... well, no. The hierarchy sprung out of the need of the Church as recorded in Acts. The appointment of deacons started the hierarchical organization of the Church. The lampshade garment that the priest wore is thousands of years old in design and the stiffness of it tells me that he's of Russian practice - they stiffened and raised the back of the garment to keep the priest warm back in the days of no central heating in a Russian winter. Here's a link to an explantion of his garments. The entire process of vesting a priest is full of prayer and quotations from Scripture. Vesting a bishop is even more involved and often children participate in the process by processing with each article. The kids love that.

And the priest and the young man in the corner? They were probably having confession. In Orthodoxy, there is no confessional booth. We stand before icons, a cross and the priest and confess to God - not the priest - and the priest bears witness to the confession, often adds comment as teaching and therapy, and then prays for the forgiveness of the pentitent. Not having been Catholic, I'm not entirely sure how this differs from the RC practice.

Walking cold into a Divine Liturgy is like jumping into the Arctic Ocean in the middle of a storm. I'm glad you got Frederica's pamphlet. (You can also check her site http://www.frederica.com for more of her writing.) I hope you'll consider going back. Liturgy is too deep for a single visit to understand.

Kizmet, a convert to Orthodoxy

Posted by: Kizmet on October 18, 2004 07:24 AM

The post about the third-century mass was here. Unfortunately the original excerpt on Pontifications is no longer there, so I am going from memory here.

I am sure that no animals are allowed in Orthodox churches today, but I am sure there aren't any farm animals wandering Anglican churches today either (well, maybe in Africa somewhere...). I was just recalling the story about the altar rail because some of these traditions did indeed start for fairly mundane reasons that were later forgotten and re-explained in some other way. My Lutheran pastor told me that in early America there weren't enough Lutheran pastors to go around, so traveling pastors would come by churches to do communion once or twice a month. When the clerical ranks later filled out and some bishops tried to bring back weekly communion, a lot of the congregants resisted. They'd always done communion twice a month, and if you did it more often it wouldn't be special! Anyway, I of course have no idea what the story behind the iconostasis is, I was just pointing out that such things happen.

As to hierarchy, I know that bishops, presbyters and deacons existed as early as the New Testament, and I'm not complaining about their existence. Every group of humans has a hierarchy, and after all I was the one complaining about how my Lutheran church had no sense of its own authority. But there are a lot of different ways to conceive of hierarchy and the relations between its members; compare, for instance, the hierarchy of the military to that of a university, or a dictatorship to a republic, or a state to a family. The fact that the church developed a hierarchy was no doubt demanded simply by its existence, but that does not mean that the way it conceived of said hierarchy was completely original and uninfluenced by the larger society. However, I am speaking mostly from a gut impression at this point, knowing as little as I do about the Orthodox church.

Posted by: Camassia on October 18, 2004 09:01 AM

This is an excellent post, primarily because you have been able to capture a level of objectivity that would be beyond many, and fused that with an insatiable curiosity. Well done!

It brings to mind the occasion when I was asked to do a joint burial with a Greek Orthodox priest. Thinking the order of service would not be that different, I put together what I thought was a logical program. When the elderly priest arrived, and I attempted to explain how we would do this, he finally stopped me with a raised hand, and simply said, "My son, the two will not mix." Regardless of what I said in protest, he kept repeating that line; the traditions will not mix.

In the end, I did my thing from the Book of Common Prayer, sat down, and then he did his thing, all chanted in Greek, with much incense. Even though I didn't understand a word, the solemness, grace and beauty seemed appropriate. He was right; the two cannot mix.

Posted by: Jake on October 20, 2004 09:02 AM

Thanks, Jake. Your story reminds me that I was a little worried about visiting Orthodox churches because most of them seem so ethnic, and I wasn't sure how much would even be in English. The mission seemed safe enough because it belongs to the Orthodox Church in America, and indeed it was nearly all in English, though there were traces of its Russian origins (Kizmet pointed out one).

Posted by: Camassia on October 20, 2004 10:36 PM
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