I have been working on an essay, Orthodoxy 201: On being a Neophyte. Currently, I’m collecting perspectives from new, adult converts on their experiences after a year of being Orthodox Christians. So, I am thinking alot these days about what life after entry into the Church is like from the perspective of new converts and what issues may need to be addressed.
Christina Douglas, in a discussion with me about these new convert issues, mentioned the written comments of one of her acquaintances, a protestant pastor, Gordon Atkinson. After reading his FIRST impression of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy, I had to post it! So, by way of introducting Orthodoxy 201, here is a “hearer’s” (a specific kind of seeker) impression, well before he (might?) take up Orthodoxy 101!
I present to you Pastor Gordon Atkinson, to whom I render gratitude for his gracious consent for me to publish his article here. My readers must not be in a hurry to read to the Orthodox part. He shows his searching colours in the first section…
Not for Lightweights
By Gordon Atkinson
Sunday was the 4th of 13 in my sabbatical time. Each of them is precious to me. Each week I will choose a place and a way to worship. I’m not being a tourist. I’m seeking authentic spiritual experiences. I want to worship. I can’t define what I’m doing beyond that. I’m making no plans until a few days before Sunday.
The first two weeks I kept silence with the Quakers. One of the Friends told me their central doctrine was simple: “There is that of God in every person.” Quakers are rather like Buddhists – heavy on method and light on doctrinal statements. Having grown up in the evangelical world, where what one says about Jesus is thought to be so incredibly and insanely important, I have been seeking practice more than doctrine of late. So I enjoyed my time with the Quakers greatly.
The third Sunday I went to Austin to visit Journey: An Imperfect Faith Community. http://www.journeyifc.com/ That’s their name. They rather lay it on the line, don’t they? Rick and David are two of the most delightful, unpretentious, interesting pastors I’ve ever met. Funny, earthy, deep thinking. If you’re used to church with a lot of clear rules and traditional boundaries, Journey will be like a postmodern slap in your face. The mind spins and reels. Everywhere is mismatched furniture, icons, stacks of books, music equipment, Christmas lights, and unexpected things of all kinds. It’s man-cave meets the Upper Room. Once I was there and found a hotdog, in its bun, with a line of mustard on it, that had petrified to the point where I had to bang it on the table to see if it was real or a squeaky dog toy. I really wasn’t sure at first. It was real. I showed it to Rick, who said, “Cool.”
I SO wish I had stolen it and brought it back to my own man-cave, my office at church. I think it would be fine there. I doubt if even bacteria are interested in it now. Seriously, I have the strangest urge to wander though Journey picking things up and taking them home with me. And unless it was a microphone or something they really need, I think they’d be okay with that.
Having spoken there once and been there a number of times, I think I might have stealing privileges. Rick, David, if you see this, just leave a comment and let me know if it’s okay for me to snag some things when I’m there. If that hot dog is still there, I have dibs on it.
Dibs count at Journey. I saw it in their bylaws.
Saturday night Jeanene and I still hadn’t decided where to go. I experienced something common to our culture but new to me. The “Where do you want to go to church – I don’t know where do YOU want to go to church” conversation. I found the Saint Anthony the Great website, http://orthodoxsanantonio.org/ It’s an Orthodox church that has beautiful Byzantine art in the sanctuary.
We decided to go there.
Shelby and Lillian went with us. On the way we warned them that this was going to be different. “They might not have changed their worship service much in a thousand years or so,” I told the girls.
That was an understatement.
Saint Anthony the Great isn’t just old school. It’s “styli and wax tablets” old school. We arrived ten minutes early for worship and the room was already filled with people lighting candles and praying. There was one greeter. I said, “We don’t know what to do.” She handed me a liturgy book and waved us inside.
Pews? We don’t need no stinking pews! Providing seats for worshipers is SO 14th century. Gorgeous Byzantine art, commissioned from a famous artist in Bulgaria. Fully robed priests with censors (those swinging incense thingies). Long, complex readings and chants that went on and on and on. And every one of them packed full of complex, theological ideas. It was like they were ripping raw chunks of theology out of ancient creeds and throwing them by the handfuls into the congregation. And just to make sure it wasn’t too easy for us, everything was read in a monotone voice and at the speed of an auctioneer.
I heard words and phrases I had not heard since seminary. Theotokos, begotten not made, Cherubim and Seraphim borne on their pinions, supplications and oblations. It was an ADD kids nightmare. Robes, scary art, smoking incense, secret doors in the Iconostas popping open and little robed boys coming out with golden candlesticks, chants and singing from a small choir that rolled across the curved ceiling and emerged from the other side of the room where no one was singing. The acoustics were wild. No matter who was speaking, the sound came out of everywhere. There was so much going on I couldn’t keep up with all the things I couldn’t pay attention to.
Lillian was the first to go down. After half an hour of standing, she was done. Jeanene took her over to a pew on the side wall. She slumped against Jeanene’s shoulder and stared at me with this stunned, rather betrayed look on her face.
“How could you have brought us to this insane place?”
Shelby tried to tough it out. We were following along in the 40 page liturgy book that was only an abbreviation of the service we were experiencing. I got lost no less than 10 times. After 50 minutes Shelby leaned over and asked how much longer the service would be. I was trying to keep from locking my knees because my thighs had gotten numb. I showed her the book. We were on page 15. I flipped through the remaining 25 pages to show her how much more there was. Her mouth fell open.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. And I think there’s supposed to be a sermon in here somewhere.”
“They haven’t done the SERMON yet? What was that guy doing who said all that stuff about—all that stuff?”
“I don’t know” I said.
“I have to go to the bathroom,” she said. I looked around and saw the door at the back of the sanctuary swinging shut.
And then there was one.
I made it through the entire 1 hour and 50 minutes of worship without sitting down, but my back was sore. Shelby came back toward the end. When it came time for communion I suggested that we not participate because I didn’t know what kind of rules they have for that. We stayed politely at the back. A woman noticed and brought some of the bread to us, bowing respectfully as she offered it. Her gesture of kindness to newcomers who were clearly struggling to understand everything was touching to me.
Okay, so I started crying a little. So what? You would have too, I bet.
After it was over another woman came to speak with us. She said, “I noticed the girls were really struggling with having to stand.”
“Yeah,” I said. “This worship is not for lightweights.”
She laughed and said, “yes,” not the least bit ashamed or apologetic.
So what did I think about my experience at Saint Anthony the Great Orthodox Church?
I LOVED IT. Loved it loved it loved it loved it loved it.
In a day when user-friendly is the byword of everything from churches to software, here was worship that asked something of me. No, DEMANDED something of me.
“You don’t know what Theotokos is? Get a book and read it. You have a hard time standing for 2 hours? Do some sit ups and get yourself into worship shape. It is the Lord our God we worship here, mortal. What made you think you could worship the Eternal one without pain?”
See, I get that. That makes sense to me. I had a hard time following the words of the chants and liturgy, but even my lack of understanding had something to teach me.
“There is so much for you to learn. There is more here than a person could master in a lifetime. THIS IS BIGGER THAN YOU ARE. Your understanding is not central here. These are ancient rites of the church. Stand with us, brother, and you will learn in time. Or go and find your way to an easier place if you must. God bless you on that journey. We understand, but this is
the way we do church.”
I’m going back again on Sunday. I started to write, I’m looking forward to it.” But that’s not right. I’m feeling right about it.
And feeling right is what I’m looking for.