As many different churches as I visited as a child and young adult, I never had occasion to visit an Eastern Orthodox church. I didn’t know anyone who attended one, and the only time I lived near one was the year when I was teaching Spanish at a Christian school in Levittown, PA. I walked or drove past it often, and wondered what it was like.
My curiosity didn’t extend to actually visiting it, however. The school where I taught had a list of acceptable churches for its teachers to attend. I don’t remember whether all the churches on the list were Baptist, but an Eastern Orthodox church would most certainly not have been acceptable.
After I married and became a Presbyterian, I had more contact with people from other Christian traditions. The church we attended in Langhorne participated in ecumenical activities with other churches in town (with the notable exception of the fundamentalist Baptist church I had attended previously). I remember discussing church and theology with the priest of the Episcopal church on Good Friday during the Walk behind the Cross, and one year I attended a Saturday retreat held at the Friends meeting-house and getting to know some Roman Catholics.
I also read a lot, and I was particularly intrigued by accounts I read of former evangelicals who had converted to Eastern Orthodoxy. I couldn’t imagine following their example, but I understood some of the factors that seemed to motivate them.
Evangelical churches tend to be non-liturgical. One reason I was happy to become a Presbyterian was to return to some of the more formal worship service elements that I had grown up with. I like singing the Doxology as the (filled) offering plates are taken back up front. I like reciting the Apostles Creed, knowing that I am saying the same statement of belief that millions of others are saying and have said across the centuries.
I find it helpful to have a responsive Call to Worship at the beginning of the service, to get myself into the right frame of mind for worship. I appreciate the unison prayer of confession, as long as it is well-written to express our common failures to love God and our neighbor as ourselves, and the Assurance of Pardon. And I much prefer singing the majestic hymns with their deep theology to the camp revival songs so popular in some fundamentalist churches.
Eastern Orthodox worship services are even more highly structured, and do not adapt to the changing culture around them. I have been amused, sometimes, to hear an evangelical song leader proudly point out that a song we are singing is over a hundred years old. Hymns we sing in the Presbyterian church are often two or three hundred years old. But the liturgy of the Orthodox church is more than a thousand years older than that.
I had no idea just what such a service was like, however. I had read Frederica Mathewes-Green’s book At the Corner of East and Now, and she describes their services. At least two of the regulars at WorldMag Community (at some point over the years) have talked about their experiences in Eastern Orthodox churches.
I have read various websites that describe the beliefs and practices of the Eastern Orthodox. Having been raised as a Protestant to view Catholicism and Orthodoxy as close to each other while very different from Protestantism, it was a surprise to discover that Orthodox Christians see Protestants and Catholics as being similar in their (mistaken) views of what it means to be Christian.
For a few years, I’ve been interested in visiting an Eastern Orthodox church, but have not had the opportunity. Then last weekend, walking around Quincy, IL while my husband took a nap, I discovered an Eastern Orthodox storefront mission, and saw that they had a Saturday vespers service at 5:30 PM. I asked my husband if he was interested – unsurprisingly he was not, but he told me to feel free to go.
I showed up at 5:15, not wanting to arrive at the last minute. It would be helpful, I thought, to have some minutes ahead of time to get some idea what to do during the service. I found the room set up with a few rows of chairs across the back and a row down one side, and a couple of rows of music stands in front. (I knew from the books I had read that the congregation normally stands for the entire worship service.) There was only one person there, a woman seated in a chair, who smiled at me but otherwise left me alone to wander around looking at icons and brochures.
I suppose she was probably praying when I arrived. After a few minutes she came over and introduced herself. Upon learning that I was not Orthodox and had no idea how the worship service worked, she invited me to share a music stand with her so I could follow along. By the time the service started, only two more people had arrived, a couple who shared a music stand in the row behind us. The woman I had met first handed the man a Bible and asked him to read Scripture when the time came in the service.
To my surprise, the service started without the priest making an appearance. From behind the doors up front he chanted something, and the woman next to me chanted something in response. (I didn’t figure out until after the service was over that the priest was her husband.) Then she did a lot more chanting, which I was able to follow as it was all printed out on pages on the music stand.
I remember visiting Catholic churches a few times, and finding it difficult to keep track of when to sit, when to stand, and when to kneel, when to read from the missal and when to use the hymnal. (I once visited a Missouri Synod Lutheran Church and found it very similar.) Here, at least, Sally helped me by always flipping to the correct page and pointing to what line we were on. I couldn’t help wondering how long it had taken her to learn the sequence, though. There seemed to be a great deal of jumping from one set of pages to another.
At one point Sally indicated that the man at the other music stand should recite the next line in the liturgy. He hesitated for a bit, apparently not sure how to chant the line properly. It turned out that chanting was not required, however, as he ended up simply reading it. (My husband once filled in for a friend who was a Lutheran pastor at a church where much of the liturgy was chanted, and I vaguely remember him explaining indications on each line how to chant it.)
Sally chanted the next section. Then to my surprise, she asked me to do the next line. Once I was sure I hadn’t misunderstood, I read the line, having realized that reading in an ordinary voice was allowed. From there on, the three of us took turns, Sally pointing to a line when it was my turn. I wondered what the priest thought of the unfamiliar voice.
Speaking of the priest, he came out from behind the doors sometimes, and went back in at other times. One time he went around the entire storefront swinging a censer, filling the place with the smell of incense. He did relatively little of the chanting, it seemed, and never faced us. He faced the altar mostly, or turned to face the icon of the Virgin Mary when she was mentioned in the liturgy.
I was relieved that at least the entire service was in English. The one Greek word that was used was Theotokos, used to refer to Mary. I wondered why they preferred to use that term rather than its English translation, God-bearer. There are some words that simply do not translate well, because the closest translation in the target language does not carry the same nuances as the word in the original language. But other than having been used for close to 2000 years to refer to Mary, I don’t know what Theotokos connotes that God-bearer does not.
As a Protestant, I am naturally a bit uncomfortable with giving such deference to Mary during a church service. I realize that the Orthodox do not worship saints, they venerate them, but it is a distinction difficult for Protestants to understand.
Another practice that kept me aware of the differences in our traditions was the sign of the cross. I didn’t quite figure out exactly what prompted it each time Sally did it, but she did it a lot. On a few occasions, it was accompanied with a bow from the waist. She did it very gracefully, and I wondered how long it took to learn.
I tried to keep my focus on worshiping God, but it was hard not to feel like an observer more than a participant, even when I was reading some of the prayers aloud. (Perhaps even more so when I was reading aloud, as I wondered how I sounded to those more familiar with the liturgy. At least the only time I came across unfamiliar names was a list of Orthodox martyrs in North America. I followed the same rule I use when reading Scripture aloud – take your best guess and say the name as though you know how to say it, and most people will assume you are right.)
I’m sure there was some recognizable structure to the service, but I couldn’t figure out what it was. Finally the priest instructed us to sit, and he came forward and gave a brief sermon. Even then he did not look at us, which felt very strange to me. And it wasn’t because he was reading his sermon, as he didn’t have any papers in front of him. It was brief, and because the mood had changed from formal to more informal, it felt rather like it was tacked on to the service rather than an integral part of it.
After the service I chatted briefly with the priest and his wife. I’m sure I could have asked lots of questions, but I tend to be hesitant when conversing with people I have just met, especially when I don’t expect to see them again. I did find out that they had converted to Orthodoxy from a Protestant background – Lutheran, I think. If I had been talking with people at a church in this area, I would have wanted to learn much more about what led them to convert. As it was, I just asked about the purpose of the singing (chanting) in the service.
According to Father Thaddeus, singing is a way to free oneself to enter more fully into worship. It’s true that the emotions are generally more engaged in singing than in ordinary speaking, but I tend to think of that as having a lot to do with the mood evoked by the music as well as the words. The few notes used in chanting (most of a line is sung on a single note, with occasional higher or lower notes) don’t seem to evoke much of a mood to me. But perhaps if you did it all the time, and could chant without having to pay attention to how to do it, the chanting would come to evoke a mood of “worship.”
I remember reading in Mathewes-Green’s book her answer to those who object to the strangeness of Orthodox worship, with all the standing and singing and incense. She points out that this strangeness helps us remember the “otherness” of God, lest we try to make God fit into our lives rather than conforming ourselves to Him.
I understand the idea behind this, but it goes contrary to what I was taught previously about worship arising out of the normal modes of communication and behavior in a culture. There is a (Baptist) church that I attended for a few years that consciously tries to avoid specifically religious languages or symbols. They invite people to access Jesus as Forgiver and Leader rather than Savior and Lord, their building has no Christian symbols on it (there is a portable cross sometimes brought onto the stage for worship), and people dress casually for services. The message they want to convey through this is that God is part of our whole lives, not just Sunday morning, so why should we change the way we dress or talk when we go into a church building?
Most of what we associate today with religious practices was once part of everyday life. Some people today think that using “Thee” and “Thou” when addressing God is a sign of respect, but in fact those words denoted a familiar relationship when they were a normal part of the English language. Today, at least in the U.S., we use the word Lord to refer only to God, but at one time everyone knew what it meant to bow to a lord, or to serve him and be protected by him, and it had nothing to do with religion. The robes worn by many ministers were originally academic robes – needed to keep one warm in the cold halls of a university. Greeting one another with a kiss is still a common practice in other parts of the world.
So I would guess that much of what seems strange in Orthodox worship today (at least to Americans) was once just a part of everyday life. For those people, it wasn’t a reminder of the otherness of God, but of His being part of their daily lives. I mentioned something along these lines to Father Thaddeus, and he told me that the Orthodox liturgy is largely a continuance of Jewish worship practices from Bible times. I didn’t ask, but wondered, whether we really know much about the details of their worship practices, or if it is simply assumed that the Orthodox worship of the early centuries followed a natural trajectory from the practices of the earliest Christians, who were Jewish and were worshipping in the same style they always had (but with a new focus, on Jesus).
One thing I found myself wondering, as I reflected back on the experience of the Orthodox worship service, is to what extent – if at all – my perception of the worship experience correlates to what God thinks of it. I have read criticisms of the attempt to have “meaningful” worship experiences, because that puts the focus on how I feel about it rather than what God thinks about it. If I’m bored and my mind wanders and I end up daydreaming, I rather doubt that it’s meaningful worship from God’s point of view. But what about that worship service at St. Raphael’s in Quincy?
I didn’t feel particularly worshipful, though I wanted to. Mostly I felt curious and uncertain. I tried not to think too much about what the other people there thought of me, especially at times such as when I was trying to pronounce the name Juvenaly. The prayers stirred in me neither a sense of connection to God or to the other worshippers, nor the opposite (a sense of being out of place). I think I was sincere in what I was saying, but much of the time I felt like a detached observer even when I was the one speaking.
So does worship consist in my intentions? My attitude? The words that I say? The extent to which I am open to being changed by the experience?
I have lots of questions, but few answers.