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.


  1. My new favorite way to find your blog is googling "Christian or else."

    It takes a little extra time but it's worth the effort. 3rd page of google results.

    it was on the first page once.

  2. Try searching Christian agnostic; I'm #7. I'd once been #3 for that. If nothing else, Google's pagerank algorithm changes how things are sorted from time to time.