The best, most meaningful things in life, the ones that touch us the most deeply, and evoke the most within our souls, always tend to be multi-faceted and complex. They are never just one thing, but appear differently to us, when looked at from other perspectives, or when held in a different light. In addition to being beautiful and mysterious, the Divine Liturgy of the Orthodox Church, is also homey and familiar. Not only does it have the power to uplift and transform us into heavenly realms, but it also evokes the best memories and feelings of earthly life.
In many Orthodox churches, and all of the ones I’ve attended, there are no pews in the center of the worship space, since everyone who is able, stands throughout the service. Before the Liturgy begins, as the chanter chants the psalms of the hourly prayer, the people meet together and mill about; it is like a gathering of family, for a holiday, at the home of a loved one. It is an informal and intimate experience as families greet each other, children run to visit one another, perhaps a few folks are lighting candles and oil lamps, others are looking over their music as they stand ready in the choir, some find a quiet space in a corner and pray, or they find solace in the embrace of a beloved friend, or they stand in silence pondering the life of a friend from the past, staring intently at an icon—into the golden face of a departed saint. I have always felt this feeling of festivity awaiting the beginning of the Liturgy; the air has a feeling of excitement and anticipation, and the space itself has a feeling of warmth and comfort. Adding to this feeling of coziness are the assortment of throw rugs adorning the floors, much like the home of that loved one we might visit every Christmas or Thanksgiving. In all of these ways, the church is welcoming us and inviting us home again.
I’ve already mentioned the sublimity of the Divine Liturgy, its music, prayers, incense, and so on, yet it also contains innocence and simplicity. Nothing, to my mind, portrays this simplicity and innocence more than when it is time for the priest to share his homily and everyone, young and old, takes their seat on the floor to listen. It reminds me of story time in grade school. All generations, grandchildren, grandparents, all sitting humbly together on the rugs, ready to listen to the story that our father has for us today. There is something so very helpful in allowing our bodies to conform to this attitude of humility and innocence, it stimulates our minds to follow suit, assisting us in acquiring that blessed simplicity that Jesus encourages us to adopt on our journey to the Kingdom of God.
If the gathering of the church—the body of Christ, as the church is defined—could be compared, in a small way, to a gathering of family during the holidays, then the liturgy, which is the primary weekly holiday gathering in the Orthodox Church, is a fulfilling, satisfying and transformative, truly holy day. So very unlike the family gatherings I had come to expect in the houses of worship from my past, here the televisions are turned off, entertaining music isn’t playing in the background for our amusement, and the entire gathering is focused and directed in joyful anticipation towards the thanksgiving meal at the end, of genuine participation in the feast of feasts, our true communion with the body and blood of our Lord.
In other houses of worship, which I have experienced, I was first entertained and informed, and then maybe encouraged, and then finally given some inspiring words, a prayer and a pep talk; and on occasion, I was given a chip or a cracker and some juice as a tribute to an idea, a memorial to an important event from the past, and then benedicted away for the week. But in this liturgy, at this gathering of the people, the goal is true union with the body of Christ, communion with the Spirit of God, it is all about our participation with God, and not merely our conceptualization of Him. We seek to dwell now with our creator, the awesome and magnificent Power behind everything that exists; it is a fearful and presumptuous desire that we have, made possible only through the grace and mercy of a loving God. It is a transcendent and solemn affair, and it is given the solemnity and respect due something so uniquely powerful, holy, and priceless.
For about two years I attended the liturgy but was unable to fully participate in it, since I wasn’t a baptized Orthodox Christian. I can understand why some people might feel left out and feel offended or angry about being excluded from the Eucharist, but certainly the intent in offering it only to members of the church isn’t to exclude people; for everyone is welcome to join, but it is a respect for the importance of the gift being offered, and a protection against our superficiality, which could tend to render this amazing gift commonplace. Scripture itself admonishes us all to take these gifts of our Lords flesh and blood, with respect, and in a worthy way, so as not to bring condemnation down upon us. So it is out of loving concern that the Orthodox Church doesn’t open this sacrament up to those who may not understand its significance, or the appropriate attitude to have when approaching it. As for the inclusiveness, that we in the world tend to want, from all of our institutions, it is there in the form of the antidoron bread, which is available for everyone to enjoy during Communion, as an expression of fellowship and love.
So I had been attending the church for quite a while, and had even joined the choir, but was unable to participate in the Eucharist; the entire teleological reason for the liturgy, and indeed, also for my life. I knew I had found my spiritual home finally, after all the years of seeking in so many different places, I knew my home was in the Orthodox Church. I knew this was the place for me to finally find rest from my years of wandering and experimenting. Not that this was the end of my journey, for Christ and the church promises us an eternity of discovery and growth in God, but rather this was the place where I could finally become myself. I could see, and feel, and understand the potential, and the hope present here, for all that kept me from God, to finally fall away, or be ground out of me; like scales, or dead skin—all the lies, confusion, the emptiness and meaninglessness, the loneliness and anxiety could be shed, and I could be healed and transformed, resuscitated and given new life. The church has a method and a means to do this; an apostolic mandate and heritage, with the power of the Holy Spirit filling its traditions and its teachings, so that each member can, in actuality, attain divine union; attain purity, illumination, and deification, according to the workings of grace granted them by God.
All of this I knew instinctively about my new spiritual home, from all of the things I had already experienced within it, and also from the things I had read about it. In my heart I felt as if I had always been an Orthodox Christian, I just hadn’t known it. I had been a voice crying out, alone in the wilderness, and I could now finally come inside, and live amongst my own people.
(to be continued)