Reflections on a visit to St. Tertullian’s Orthodox Church (4/25/2010)
My oldest daughter surprised us with a visit Sunday AM so I took the opportunity to return alone to St. Tertullian’s Orthodox church (not it’s real name). I drove to the chruch, parked in the lot, entered the lobby, a woman bustling about saw me, introduced herself as Sarah (not her real name) and said in part, “We’re mostly all former Protestants here. You can’t make any mistakes. Please join us. ”
Inside the sanctuary were about 20 adults standing and singing/chanting Bible texts (Matins?) that were somehow related to the texts to be used in the divine liturgy (I never made the connection). I entered @ 9:45 (15 min. before divine liturgy) and stood by a guy who introduced himself as Phil (not his real name). He volunteered to show me what’s going on. He said, “The first time I visited an Orthodox church I wanted to run for the door!” All during the liturgy he gave me a running commentary.
“This orthodox church is connected to Syria so there’s a tinge of Arab flavor to the ceremony.” I had no idea what that meant.
“St. Crysostrum, an attendee to one of the early church councils, wrote this liturgy based on the early church AND the Old Testament.” I believe it; the priests looked like SS flannel graphs of Levites. They swung censors with bells and smoke (or water?).
Phil had just returned from a three week vacation to Constantinople (I think he called it Istanbul?) to “study his spiritual roots.” There he bought icons and brought them home and during the liturgy the priests blessed them for parishioners use at home.
“The four largest icons up front are (from left to right) St. Tertullian, Theotokos (Mary), Jesus, then John the Baptist.” All about the sanctuary were 150 smaller icons, portraits of famous saints. “See that painting on the ceiling? That’s Jesus coming out of the tomb with Adam and Eve on both sides. I saw the original of that painting in Constantinople last Sunday. This congregation here is more user friendly then that one.”
As 10 AM rolled around the attendance picked up but with no discernable shift in the program. It was an effortless slide into divine liturgy, the only difference was the attendance grew to about 70 participants, 20 of which were noisy kids. It wasn’t raucous, but it wasn’t silent and somber. It was just a bunch of noisy worshippers. Chanting scripture, singing scripture, antiphonal songs, prayers, blessings, creeds.
Phil handed me an order of service with the prayers, songs, chants, printed out. I followed along best I could but mostly enjoyed the notion that Jesus was listening to all this, even my halting participation. Seemed like everyone knew when to cross themselves (they did it in sync) but I couldn’t tell what cue alerted them to do so. Like Sarah said, nobody paid any attention to my gaffs and I bumbled through—frequently out of sync--indicating with my hand my faith in the trinity.
Father Vladimr (not his real name) gave a short homily that would have fit in any fundamentalist Baptist church. The text was about Jesus healing the cripple at the pool of Bethsaida, “Many today don’t know they’re in need of spiritual healing.” He went on to lament the deplorable spiritual state of our country today. “Back in the 50s stores were closed on Sunday, what was seen as scandalous porn then is bland by today’s standards. When communists took over Russia they dedicated themselves to stamping out the church. They closed the churches. That didn’t work. They arrested priests and bishops. That didn’t work. They even martyred Christians. That didn’t work. Then they got the idea to put school activities on Sunday morning and Wednesday evenings—sports, debates, trips. They took the kids out of church and in 20 years the Albania was the first fully atheist country.”
After the 6 minute homily there was much kissing of icons, Bibles, the hand of priests, and goblets. Remember all the while there’s no silence. It’s continual quoting (singing) scripture and prayers. 5 pre-chrismated (candidates for membership) went forward for a blessing during the service. As time for Eucharist drew near, it seemed like some sort of crescendo was coming.
Phil said, “Before we celebrate the Eucharist we must fast from food, sex, water. Then after the service we go home for lots of fun. In the Roman Catholic Church the Priests turn the elements into the body and blood of Christ. Here, it’s the job of the Holy Spirit.” In the sacristy (holy of holies?) the priests and bisops were doing some sort of incantations.
I asked, “How does the Priest know when it happens?” He said, “That’s between him and God. Once we had to wait about a half hour for it to happen.”
He continued his commentary, “My wife bakes the bread for Eucharist…she sings hymns while kneading, saying prayers over each ingredient (yeast, etc). I once came home in a surly mood and angrily griped about something … and the bread fell flat. She had to start over.” I said jokingly, “Shame on you.”
The priests treated the elements like they were radio active --- paraded around the sanctuary holding the transformed elements in carefully wrapped containers--held bibs over the communicants so nothing spilled, offered plain bread to all after eating the Eucharist so as to soak up all the blood of Christ in one’s stomach (I’m not clear what that’s all about). “If a drop of the blood of Christ falls on the carpet they have to burn the carpet. We take this very seriously.”
I went forward to receive a blessing. Was offered and took a piece of the non-Eucharistic bread.
As the service drew to a close I asked Phil, “No walking around building? We did that the last time I visited.” “No,” he said, “that only happens on certain occasions.”
By 11:30 the service was over. I was invited to stay for lunch (they break their fast together). I declined.
Concluding reflections: Protestant churches are way more cerebral….exegesis, outlines, illustrations intended to grip the imagination, tight logic and points for application. The Orthodox experience is just that, an experience that touches the senses. This liturgy kept folks educated in the faith for 1400 years before the printing press so the faith is passed on kinesthetically (we stood the whole time), auditory (sweet singing, bells, chants), visual (icons, paintings, symbolism galore), olfactory (I don’t have a sense of smell so I can’t speak to this), and tactile (kisses, hugs, jostling about like in a crowded airport). Like an aerobics class forcing my body to go through its paces, the liturgy forces me to focus on Christ for 90 minutes. (I recently read an Oprah chit lit book Eat, Pray, Love wherein the author spent hours in meditation despite bodily aches and pains—figured I could do at least that for Jesus). Repetition like this is intended to transform minds. Taking Eucharist is “partaking of the divine nature” (being non Orthodox I only watched). I’m not sure how much this liturgy enhanced my encounter with Jesus (I’d like to think a lot…I wept at times) and how much was the sheer novelty of it all. But I came away with a mind marinated in Jesus without doing the heavy cerebral lifting I am wont to do. He is risen. He is risen indeed!