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.
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.
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