Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Heirloom furniture

I heard many stories about protestants becoming Orthodox; a common event in these stories is a realization of the beauty of the church's expressions. Some people are overwhelmed by the smell of the incense or the ornate robes worn by the priest or the icons or the chandelier. The Orthodox have great chandeliers, and in some services, the lights on the chandelier get turned on when the divine light is mentioned in the chant. The chants sounded familiar to me; I realized that much of the services are directly drawn from scripture. I suppose some westerners are put off by how alien the Orthodox services are. The music is in different keys than we're used to. The paintings don't show perspective properly, they feel like pop-up books.

In an Orthodox service, every sense is affected. The atmosphere is benevolently strange, not strange like being alone-in-the-woods-at-night; the space feels fantastic, as in fantasy. Halfway into Divine Liturgy, one would expect talking animals to appear and join in. Maybe they would wear clothes, like Peter Rabbit in Beatrix Potter's stories. I was running a Dungeons and Dragons game at the time, and looked to Orthodox services for inspiration.

Badgers were an inside joke in my D&D group; at one point, I and a few other players made it our characters' ultimate goal to get pet badgers. I heard that the Orthodox believe that the Bible isn't the only authority, but that there is authority in tradition. I Googled for the words "saint" and "badger"; if anything came up, Orthodoxy was not to be taken seriously.

St Piran was a missionary to Cornwall in the sixth century. Upon arriving there, he started building a cell. Animals helped him, so his first converts were a fox, a bear, and a badger.

I asked about this; is it necessary to believe that St Piran evangelized a badger for one to be properly Orthodox? An Orthodox friend told me, no, the tradition can't be taken like that. Just because someone, somewhere, is telling a story doesn't mean that the whole church backs that story. There are some stories that are wrong and false, there are some stories that are fun and helpful but of dubious veracity, there are some stories that probably happened and are good to remember, and then there are the things that the whole church affirms and has always affirmed and that are essential to fellowship with God. Having grown up a biblical literalist, I found this nuanced understanding of truth to be helpful. I don't think that St Piran actually baptized and taught a badger and a fox and a bear, but I think it's a nice story that makes me smile, and it reminds me that you can tell a lot about someone's heart based on how they and animals get along.

I was then beginning to appreciate how mature Orthodoxy is in its approach to truth, and to see that maturity in other things, too. At some church fellowship meals, wine would be served—that's classy. It was understood that everyone would be reading good spiritual books. People kept in their homes hand-painted icons.

I have a particular attachment to the booklets that were given away for free in the lobby. I remember that the booklets were printed by Conciliar Press, I appreciated them so; I would pick them up and hold them and look at them. In evangelicalism, I had seen shoddy gospel tracts, like Chick tracts, that seemed to do good only to the people handing them out. These Conciliar Press booklets, though, are well-written, sensible, regarding things that inquirers into Orthodoxy would like to know about. They are excellent examples of writing that is suited to its audience, but they're also notably well-printed booklets, cleanly designed, and printed on sturdy bright white paper. I'm agnostic now, it's been three years, and I still can't throw away my Conciliar Press booklets.

Around this time, I remember sitting in my church and thinking that it wasn't as classy as an Orthodox church, but there were some good things that were in common. I looked around the sanctuary and saw a cross at the front of the room and paintings on the wall. Our cross was probably made out of a bannister, our paintings aren't on wood, our music was nice but not as mysterious as chant. I wanted to make sure that I was becoming Orthodox for important reasons, not just because I wanted to be classy. And then, looking around my church, I saw a praise banner being waved; it had four arcs: red, white, blue, and camouflage.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010


One Saturday afternoon in November I went to see a murder mystery play alone. I went because I had a friend who was acting in it, but I didn't know anyone else to go with. The seating was at tables and hot dogs and salad were for sale for maybe a dollar each. I didn't want anything. I had just become a vegetarian that summer. The play was in a middle school cafeteria or gym or something; I sat at a big round cafeteria table with some old people that I didn't know. The play let out at four or so.

I figured that I might as well drive by the Holy Cross Antiochian Orthodox Church; the priest and his wife had talked on campus at UMBC a week or two before. I wandered in, and found some people up near the front of the temple, puzzling over a chalice. It turned out that there was a special class on Saturdays for inquirers. Fr Gregory was giving a tour of the building and explaining the significance of different parts of the art and architecture. It was fine that I had moseyed in. There was some time between that class and Vespers, and I talked with Peter, a middle-aged man with a beard who wore a cap and glasses. Peter had been a protestant, a Presbyterian (PCA, the same denomination I'd grown up in), and he had become Orthodox some time before. He told me a little more about Orthodoxy. He mentioned that back in the 80's 2,000 evangelicals had converted to Orthodoxy, all-at-once, under the leadership of some people from Campus Crusade for Christ.

I had just planned on showing up for Vespers, and was glad that I'd accidentally showed up early. Before the service, I asked if there was anything I needed to know. Peter told me that, no matter what, I wouldn't be able to keep up, but that's expected so I should enjoy myself. There were books with the words from the chants, but I was told that it's better to listen at the first few services one goes to and just absorb. The only tips that I got were how to make the sign of the cross and that most people stand for the whole service. There aren't even chairs, except for a few on each side, for the people who can't stand for an hour or two. The temple had a lot of thick oriental rugs with good cushioning.

There was a lot of chanting, and some of it sounded familiar, but I couldn't quite place it. The walls were covered with icons, but I couldn't see them very well, because the lights were out. The deacon came out with a metal shakey thing and shook it around; it made clangy bell sounds and smoke came out. We all bowed and he shook the incense shaker at us. Fr Gregory was in a robe, doing something at the front of the room, but I couldn't quite tell what he was doing, because he was behind a wall. The wall had a doorway with a low gate in the middle, so whenever he was near the doorway, I could see him, but he was mumbling things I couldn't hear. The gate reminded me of the door to a cowboy saloon. I figured out why the chanting sounded familiar; the psalms were being chanted. I hadn't read the psalms, just a few of them, but I suppose that a church kid like me would have heard a lot of bits growing up.

All of a sudden, everyone made the sign of the cross and bent over, touching the floor. I was the only one standing for a moment and I felt embarrassed. I tried to mimic everyone; they bent down again, and once more. I felt the same way that I do when I'm doing the electric slide at weddings; I know the general direction to go in, but I'm always a couple of steps behind.

After the service, Peter invited me out to coffee so we could talk some more, but it turned out that there was free food in the church basement; the kids were watching Veggie Tales. I had grown up watching Veggie Tales; they seemed so un-Orthodox. I had thought the kids would watch special Orthodox kids' videos about thirteenth century Russians or icons or something. So we ate supper, spaghetti and peas (it was Advent). Someone there invited some of us to her house to hang out and talk; she lived just a couple of blocks from the church so we walked.

I felt like I was getting some special attention. There were half-a-dozen of us at Catherine's, and not all were properly Orthodox, but I was the least Orthodox there, so I had a lot of questions. Peter told me his story. He and his wife had been having problems, back when he was Presbyterian, so they went to the elders for advice. The elders gave them a Bible study to do on the first chapters of Genesis to learn about gender roles. Peter and his wife wound up divorcing. Peter told me that, in retrospect, it should have been clear that a worksheet on how to analyze a couple of chapters of the Bible wasn't going to save his marriage; their problems had gone far past that point.

Some time later, Peter wandered into a Divine Liturgy. Peter said that he's not the sort of guy to cry easily, but he burst into tears, right in the middle of the service, because the Divine Liturgy was so beautiful, it felt like what church should be like.

I was trying to figure out what the Orthodox believed, or, rather, how they went about believing. I had gotten tired of denominationalism and trying to figure out what was real doctrine and what was a reaction against a reaction against someone chopping up a pipe organ with a hatchet in the fifteen hundreds. Some people say that the Bible can be made to say everything, and I didn't think that, but I was still concerned by how far the Bible could be stretched. Sola scriptura, scripture alone, seemed like a good idea, it would be nice if God had given us a book with all the answers that we could generally make sense of, but the number of points of view, the dozens of denominations, was proof to me that the Bible wasn't quite clear enough.

Peter told me about the Commonitory of St Vincent of Lerins. The Orthodox interpret scripture using tradition, and St Vincent had a good way of putting how they do that; they believe that "which has been believed everywhere, always, by all." I had grown up Presbyterian, and we placed a strong emphasis on our heritage in the Reformation; that by studying the Bible, people like Martin Luther and John Calvin were able to return the church to right practice. The whole idea was to not believe what everyone had always believed, but to believe what the Bible said. I decided to read more about this later.

Catherine's living room was full of books; some were in cardboard boxes, I forget if she was moving, or if she just had so many books. She made tea for us. I drink a few cups of tea every day. I liked talking with smart people who read a lot and cared enough about believing and doing the right thing to start going to a church where the traditions were strange and different, where it was easy to be embarrassed just by being new and not knowing any better, going through that change for the sake of finding truth. I drank a cup of lemon ginger tea with them.