Deacon: Bless, Master.
Priest: BLESSED is the kingdom of the Father, and of the Son,
and of the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.
And thus began the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom at the little and beautiful St. John the Wonderworker Serbian Orthodox Church this last Sunday of All Saints morning. This was my first time to ever cross the threshold of an Eastern Orthodox church. This was my first time to participate in an Orthodox liturgy. This was my first time to hear Russian (or was it Serbian?) spoken in a church (though most of the service was in English). This was my first time to see icons in a truly reverential context. It was an hour and a half of a lot of personal firsts.
I was very nervous about going. I am wary of both my tendencies to romanticize experiences and to be cynical. I am also a ponderer and book-learner more than a doer much of the time, which allows me to keep experiences (and their required responses) at bay. I have been reading about Eastern Orthodoxy for a while now. Why I am doing so is a long story, nonetheless I am loving it and being challenged. But I had never been to an Orthodox church. So, when a couple weeks ago my wife and a very good friend of ours visited this same church on a sudden and impulsive whim, I knew I would finally have to make a visit as well.
What did I find there? Walking to the entrance I met some friends that I did not know attended the church. That was a blessing. The church is small and, as you can see from the image above, stands out architecturally. I find it beautiful. I took my eldest daughter with me; she was eager and liked it very much. My daughter knows several of the people that were there. The service was not like anything I grew up with (Baptist/Radical Reformation). Though translated into English (and thank God for the printed handout so I could follow along) the liturgy is ancient. People entered quietly, greeted each other quietly, lit candles, kissed icons (not something with which I am familiar), and stood through most of the service. We did our best to follow, to sing the words (I found it beautiful), to cross ourselves when we should (this was another first for me), and to show appropriate reverence and not look too out of place. We did not participate in either the communion (because we are not Orthodox) or in the kissing of icons, etc. There was the constant noise of children and babies; this is a family oriented community. The interior was dim, but not dark, solemn but not dour, colorful but simple, and of course, the icons which are unique and beautiful (a common word in this whole experience). The homily delivered was excellent–a remembering of all the Saints and the martyrs that are examples to us, and a reminder that Christ’s resurrection really means something, not only in terms of final salvation, but that we are not the same because of Christ’s glory; something profound has changed within us. After the service my daughter and I spoke with Father David (I believe that is how one should address him). He made a point of coming up to us and welcoming us. We did not stay for the after-service meal, but most did. They have a large backyard with garden and play structure for the kids.
What did I think about it all? I should qualify my thoughts first, and maybe get just a little too personal. I am not a “church shopper.” I do not want to consume Christianity. I am not looking for the next “meaningful” thing. I do not want a hip church, or a programmatic church, or a second chapter of Acts church, or an un-church, or a high church. I am not searching for something new or even something old. And I do not want to make decisions based on emotions, and certainly not on heresy. I am not seeking out an “experience.” In fact, I am not really searching for a church at all. And certainly I do not want to go in any direction without my wife with me. Still, and with trepidation, I am exploring. I have been on a journey, a slow journey for sure, examining the tradition I grew up in and was trained in. I have had a lot of questions, a lot of soul searching, a lot of reading. I have tended to be wary of just about everything one finds in an Orthodox church (keep in mind my limited experience): Formal liturgy, recited prayers, icons, religious garb, incense, etc., etc. And yet, my world has been subtlety shifting for several years. I do not know where God will lead me and my family. Wherever He leads that is where I want to go.
With all that in mind, I will say two things about this one visit: a) I am still on my journey, still wondering, still studying, still praying, still seeking God’s guidance and wisdom, and b) I loved it, really loved it. I want to go back and learn more about what I experienced that first time. I want to understand why I loved it and what that means.
Final thoughts: I am humbled by how much I don’t know about Christianity, about those who came before, about the practices of Christians around the world. Orthodoxy is an entirely new study for me. I am often conflicted in what I believe, and what I want to believe. This is a bad place to be according to my past Christian training, but I have since come to believe that I would rather be in the hands of God on a surreptitious journey than out of His hands with full confidence in my beliefs. I can only praise God for His love and fall on my face and ask for His mercy. I thank Him for this church experience and I pray for His guidance.
A footnote: Take another look at the beginning of the liturgy quoted at the beginning of this post. Now consider these words by Alexander Schmemann in For the Life of the World (1963/2004, p. 28):
The Orthodox liturgy begins with the solemn doxology: “Blessed is the Kingdom of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages.” From the beginning the destination is announced: the journey is to the Kingdom. This is where we are going–and not symbolically, but really. In the language of the Bible, which is the language of the Church, to bless the Kingdom is not simply to acclaim it. It is to declare it to be the goal, the end of all our desires and interests, of our whole life, the supreme and ultimate value of all that exists. To bless is to accept in love, and to move toward what is loved and accepted. The Church thus is the assembly, the gathering of those to whom the ultimate destination of all life has been revealed and who have accepted it. This acceptance is expressed in the solemn answer to the doxology: Amen. It is indeed one of the most important words in the world, for it expresses the agreement of the Church to follow Christ in His ascension to His Father, to make this ascension the destiny of man. It is Christ’s gift to us, for only in Him can we say Amen to God, or rather He himself is our Amen to God and the Church is the Amen to Christ. Upon this Amen the fate of the human race is decided. It reveals that the movement toward God has begun.